America has occupied my mind since my early childhood. I did not imagine then that I would get to live on a large plot of land in the state of Oregon or that I would become known as a photographer of American landscapes and Native people.
Growing up in a Swiss family in post-war Switzerland, my mother was hooked on America after she saw a US military band play Dixieland music live. She loved American movies and adored Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Fred Astaire. Falling asleep in the bedroom which I shared as a small child with my sister, Louis Armstrong’s benign voice would soothe me to sleep.
My musical taste developed from an early love of Johnny Cash’s deep baritone to Elvis Presley’s smooth rocking voice and then moved on to Marvin Gaye and on again to Bruce Springsteen’s blue collar rock. Any country that had female singers as cute as Linda Ronstadt or as beautiful as Diana Ross, any country that had the authority and integrity of Johnny Cash, and the powerful image of black saxophone player Clarence Clemons playing in a white rock band must be good, I thought.
At the time when I got into photography and my dad’s dream of having his son take over his Swiss architectural firm collapsed, my obsession with America was only surpassed by my love for Native American culture.
All this led to me sitting in a yellow cab in New York on 5th May 1986, on my first day in the US, being driven through the streets of Queens by a guy who looked like Morgan Freeman. The radio in the cab emanated the smooth sound of Soul music. The imitation leather seats were worn and had a faint smell of shoe polish. I felt as if I had finally come home, and it felt good.
As so often in life, nothing in America is as clear cut as it seems. On the plane journey that brought me to New York a Sally Field movie was showing. It was a Ku Klux Klan drama about a family being persecuted for being sympathetic to the black community in Texas. On the way to my promised land I was being reminded of the racist underbelly of my chosen country.
Coming to America to photograph Native Americans, chiefly the Blackfeet Indians in Montana, my girlfriend and I discovered the full beauty of the American landscape. The US offered wide open space on an unimaginable scale. I remember her almost freaking out when she first saw the Badlands in South Dakota. There was endless backcountry, so much wildlife, so many lonely mountain valleys and a myriad of hidden canyons to explore. It took us 18 months of travel just to visit the main parks and attractions of the US and that didn’t even include visiting Alaska or Florida.
Today, I am still awed by the size and beauty of the US. Coming from a country as beautiful and well-ordered as Switzerland, America blows me away with its sheer size and wildness. From the Cypress swamps of Louisiana to the hardwood forests of New England and on to Oregon’s spectacular coast, the beauty and variety of the American continent is unsurpassed.
In my mind every part of the American landscape is linked to my youthful dreams: I look at the Black Hills in South Dakota and envision Sitting Bull and his people on the wind-swept Jersey shore whilst in my head I hear Bruce Springsteen’s Atlantic City from his album Nebraska; at Mount Rushmore I see Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint climbing down the granite face of George Washington; as I drive across the country I do so with the spirit of Neal Cassady, the Beat generation writer whose stream of spontaneous consciousness prose inspired Jack Kerouac to write his seminal novel, On the Road. When I think of Boston I hear Joan Baez’s distinctive folk voice and I can almost see Neil Young driving one of his classic cars along Route 66 heading for LA and music history.
Modern popular culture from music to movies to books is all American for me. The now-fading American empire still lingers with a fog of cultural soft power covering the world. While I travel and photograph all across the American states, I wonder what other nation can take over and inspire the world to the same extent as the American Dream, with their ideas, music, literature, and movies. For me, as long as the land is here, as long as bison roam the Western plains and mockingbirds tweet in the sagebrush, I will keep on traveling and photographing America.
by Christian Heeb