The Immigrant Experience

Photographers Emma Whelan and Sandy Carson on American nostalgia

Hipsters just love that old shit. You know: four-track analog recorders, craft cocktails, bowlers, vests, and Polaroid cameras.

It’s the same reason Instagram is so popular – because it invites viewers, via a filter that faux-“ages” the image, to feel nostalgic about moments as they happen. And nostalgia is a legitimate response to an otherwise disposable consumerist culture, but those memories of things past also create alternative narratives of the present.

“People love nostalgia. I do myself,” says photographer Sandy Carson, with a lingering Scottish accent, after more than 15 years in the U.S. (Carson is a regular contributor to the Chronicle.) “I have a hard time shooting really new stuff. It’s not the way I envisioned America.”

"We Need to Talk" (Photo by Sandy Carson)

Carson, along with Swedish-born University of Texas graduate Emma Whelan, shows a collection of photographs at UT’s Visual Arts Center through Dec. 8, with the intention of presenting a view of the U.S. that Americans don’t see, conceivably because they’re too close to the subject matter. But, perhaps unintentionally, their show “Yet, By No Means” also confronts Americans with the frightening influence and staying power of their own narratives. Travel overseas and you’ll find that your average European has detailed opinions on American politics but very little understanding of everyday life – outside of what he sees in pictures and on television. And yet, you might say the same thing about your average American, minus the detailed opinion on politics. What we have instead are anecdotes, narratives. Last week, Americans chose a narrative in the form of a president, while the agencies set up to protect speech, air, water and food have all been sold to the industries they regulate. (I cannot believe California’s Prop 37 failed.)

I don’t digress, here. The exhibition suggests an ongoing study of Americaness vis-à-vis imagery, a landscape further and further influenced by consumerism, as in Carson’s work. “Honda Hoarder,” for instance, depicts a weather-worn blue hatchback, windows covered by cardboard, roof weighed down by tires and other refuse under a tarp. It’s decidedly unhip – not the kind of material you’d find on Instagram. But it is a real, intimate moment of American life that happens to describe consumerism as a pathological disorder.

"Honda Hoarder" (Photo by Sandy Carson)

Whelan’s sentimental, untitled black-and-whites test the individual’s tendency to conform ideas to existing philosophies. They hang in the exhibition space without location tags, and we assume she took them in the U.S., because that’s the angle of the show – outsider-looking-in. However, Whelan took some of the photos in Sweden and Ireland. They only look American, at least to her.

"Untitled" (Photo by Emma Whelan)

“It’s subjective for the artist and the viewer,” Whelan says. “If the photos are presented with no context, you as viewer would have to decide.” In the case of Instagram, she says that the filter encourages viewers to have a particular experience, maybe a nostalgic one, and while nostalgia is certainly at work in “Yet, By No Means,” it’s not because the photos look old.

“You will have different experience with the photographs,” Whelan says, “when you know... they’re carefully made.”

“Yet, By No Means” opens Friday, Nov. 16, 6-8 pm, and runs through Dec. 6 at the Visual Arts Center, 2300 Trinity St., UT Campus. Opening night will also include a found-footage film installation by Carson (see related story “Viewed From the Future”). For more information, visit

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Sandy Carson, Emma Whelan, Yet, By No Means, photography, UTVAC, UT Visual Arts Center

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