Following in the footsteps of settlers, gold seekers and hippies of decades past, Jack Latham retraced the Oregon Trail for his debut photobook, A Pink Flamingo
The plastic flamingo was designed in 1957 by Don Featherstone. Gloriously kitsch and garishly pink, the garden ornament fast became an icon of Americana. “People would stick it in their astroturf lawn, by their white picket fence, and it was a way of exoticising their landscape,” says Welsh documentary photographer Jack Latham.
His debut book takes its title from Featherstone’s design that became a pop culture classic. “I saw the flamingo almost as a parody of the American flag,” Latham explains. “When America planted the flag in the moon, they were saying, this is my land. When people followed the Oregon Trail, moving east to west, they foisted a flamingo in their gardens as though to say, this is my home.”
A Pink Flamingo, which launches at Cardiff’s Diffusion Festival this October, takes us on a melancholic, visual journey along the Oregon Trail, a historic route established in the 1830s by fur traders. Since then hundreds of thousands of settlers, missionaries, farmers and gold seekers have trampled across the trail from Missouri to Oregon in search of a better life.
Latham first learned about the trail as a kid, while playing an educational video game where you had to take your family safely across the trail without any of them dying. In search of a project to get stuck into during his final year studying photography at Newport, his thoughts kept returning to the game. “It was 2012, a few years after the financial crash. I wanted to photograph the people who lived along the trail almost as if they were the ancestors of the people who didn’t make it to Oregon. I was interested in this idea of travelling west as a metaphor for the hope that things will get better.”
“The Midwest is talked about in terms of ‘the flyover states’ – places like Wyoming and Nebraska are quite forgotten,” he continues. “A lot the people I met were facing financial uncertainty – people who lived in motels, some who lived in cars, hitchhikers, people who were in between jobs, who’d started a new family; all of them were, I felt, a good representation of where America was then. There’s this phrase, which I loathe, but it does sum it up: ‘the failure of the American dream’. This ideal that anyone can go to America and have a semi-detached house and a car is not a reality for many people in the Midwest.”
Over nearly three years Latham did several trips of up to a month, often sleeping in his car. “I did scratch cards. If I bought a scratch card and won – no matter if it was one dollar or 10 dollars – I would stay in a motel that night. The most I won was 40 dollars – but I bought a lot of them.” As a tribute to this, the first 100 copies of the book come with a specially-designed scratch card. Scratch off three flamingos in a row and you win a limited-edition screen print.
But the scratch cards were more than a bit of fun. In fact, they’re an integral part of Latham’s creative strategy – to cast aside his expectations, embracing whatever the experience threw at him. “I wanted that element of risk,” he says.
“If you go in with too much of a preconceived idea you end up biasing yourself so I just let things happen by chance. When the pioneers were travelling west, they never knew what the next day held, nothing was planned except from getting from A to B. I wanted to replicate that in the way I worked.”
A Pink Flamingo is available on preorder here.