Realising Joey O’Donnell had lived a "far more complex and much less cinematic” life than his childhood fantasies had allowed for, Christopher Bethell set out on a six-week road trip across America
The medium of photography is inherently entwined with memory and nostalgia, especially when it relates to family history. For Christopher Bethell, the recollections of his American grandfather, Joseph ‘Joey’ O’Donnell, were shaped by the few photographs he saw of his relative while growing up in the seemingly unglamorous northern town of Stockport, England.
Joey passed away when Bethell was a baby, and the photographer developed a fiction around him – that of a jazz musician who had left his family for a doomed second shot at his career, before falling for the temptations of Las Vegas and ending up in an early grave. Yet when he eventually sat down with his grandmother to find out what she remembered of Joey and their life together in the US, he uncovered “a story that was far more complex and much less cinematic”.
In an attempt to deconstruct his own romanticised timeline of his grandfather and – as a dual citizen of the UK and the US – to discover America for himself, Bethell took a six-week road trip taking in Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Reno and Seattle in 2015, ending the journey in Clarkston, Washington, where his grandfather had settled at the end of his life.
The subsequent series is affectionately titled The Duke of Earl, a reference to the song by Gene Chandler, which Joey had sung to his future wife the first time they met. Divided into four chapters, Bethell’s images are prefaced with a family photograph of Joey, each followed by its inscription on the back, penned by Joey.
The first chapter represents a time that Bethell taps into through his grandmother’s memories, explaining, “It was when my gran was hopeful of the American Dream. It was the beginning of their life together, and the eventual undoing of that.”
Bethell’s images act as striking representations of fleeting visuals and emotions, functioning as snapshots of the photographer’s own memory. Each one is a hybrid of Bethell’s personal nostalgia and the reality he found in front of his lens. From candid portraits to intimate glimpses, the photographs are fragments that somehow fit together, formulating Joey’s vision of America through his grandson’s eyes. Landscape shots evoke a sense of both a mental and geographical journey, while images of people remind us that Bethell is capturing moments grounded in something more private.
The fourth and last chapter marks the era when Joey finally finds solace in the city of Clarkston. “The archival image is followed by the first image I took of Clarkston, which is the view over the city,” Bethell explains. “It would have been the first view my grandfather saw as he came up that route.”
There’s a sense of tranquillity in this sequence, in contrast to a previous chapter documenting Joey’s tumultuous time in Reno, with each photograph acting as a quiet reflection or peaceful observation. As Bethell describes it upon discovering Joey’s grave: “The world had never felt so calm.”