BY MARK HARLEY
Between 2008 and 2010, photographer Michael Mergen traveled across the country documenting unusual and unexpected locations for voting polls. The result of these two years of political and sociological observation is presented in Vote: Photographs by Michael Mergen, currently on view at Longwood University’s Center for the Visual Arts in Farmville, Virginia.
Mergen set out to find peculiar polling locations following his discovery of “Ward 63, Precinct 16, Philadelphia, PA, 2008,” which reveals a voting machine inside someone’s home, adjacent to five military portraits of presumably fathers and sons. This sparked Mergen’s interest in the sites where democratic action emerges, such as this military household whose owners felt it necessary, their duty even, to sacrifice their privacy for a brief evening of public, political ritual. Interested in this ambiguous democratic relationship between public and private, Mergen began researching and photographing similar occurrences around the country.
To document these places, Mergen utilized a panoramic format, which immediately extracts the images from any type of preconceived photographic “reality,” and instead presents them as extended landscapes. Due in part to the unusual panoramic view, coupled with the seemingly outrageous voting locations, these photographs feel falsified or staged.
Not until discovering their objective, forensic titles is their veracity revealed, such as “Early Voting #10, Las Vegas, NV, 2010” and “Precinct 28080, Providence, RI, 2010”. These photographs are evidence: of the uncanny relationships between politics and consumption, public and private, the representative and the represented. All the complexities of democracy are highlighted on this single day, Election Day. Mergen’s photographs urge us to observe, with a critical eye, the spaces where politics encounter the public.
One particular image, “Precinct 22016, Corona, CA, 2010,” of a dark, desolate diner, echoes the William Eggleston photograph from 1976, on the eve of Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in his home town of Plains, Georgia (http://egglestontrust.com/images/artist_books/election_eve_p.jpg). Just over thirty years later, Mergen seems to have captured some type of eerie political encroachment as one of the booths of this diner has given way to a voting machine, its cord taut, nearing full extension.
This exhibition comes at an important time, as debate sessions have just commenced and the political commercials are in full effect, particularly here in the Old Dominion, the blooming swing state.
Vote: Photographs by Michael Mergen is on view at Longwood Center for the Visual Arts from September 28 to November 24, 2012.