There is a sense in which those motifs that have come to define the visual “essence” of American identity are merely the aspects of its cultural landscape that have been most insistently photographed. But those symbols must have already existed for them to gain the sort of hold that they did – the vast openness of America itself is one of them, or at least is was. So while it might seem like an exaggeration to suggest that Eric Ruby takes America as his subject, there is still an important distinction to be made between the different levels at which the whole notion of place can be encountered and Ruby is also aware of this; his work gathers up a multitude of small textures to create a nuanced portrait of what cannot be seen in its entirety. Of course, to treat the “social landscape” as a collection of diverse facets linked by the photographer’s own roving attention is not a radically new strategy. By contrast, Ruby is adept at finding a universal state within the particular character of the places around him as a microcosm of much larger (and much less explicitly visible) social forces.
Indeed, charting the vicissitudes of America’s essentially “placeless” hinterland has had a certain renewed currency in recent years, but it is also among the founding aims of contemporary photographic practice, moved by what might best be thought of as a literary impulse to articulate the dissonance that inevitably arises between individual necessity and the larger narratives of a given historical moment. A gloomy existentialist dissatisfaction with post-war consumer culture gave way to the more distanced appraisal of “new colour” photography and Ruby fits neatly into that progression, with an interest that is both fascinated and also somewhat anthropological. But there is, at the same time, little self-consciously expressed distance in his work, which veers more towards a kind of easy immersion in the complex ephemera of suburban life, than it does an actual dissection of its mores. He seems to recognise the significant extent to which the values of a society permeate every facet of what it produces – and, crucially, how we experience it, so that understanding the atmosphere of a suburban street corner, from the cast of light to the particular dynamics of its architecture, is to see elements of a national identity in progress.
Ruby does not present this any sort of objective fashion, however. His is very much a narrative form in which the photographer appears as a kind of fictional protagonist around whom the work, as a series of disconnected impressions relating a place or time, coalesces. There is with this a sufficient sense of openness so that the viewer enters into the narrative and, in a way, completes it. Ruby’s apparent fascination with marginal areas and objects of neglected cultural significance is reflected in the progression of the work as a whole, which is diverse and associative – here is America’s own considerable sense of itself, visible in even the smallest detail.