Photographs by Peter Dench
Article by Ye Charlotte Ming
To challenge what he thought he knew about America, award-winning British photographer Peter Dench set out to document it. First stop: Dallas.
He arrived in on a scorching hot day in June 2015, as the city geared up to celebrate America’s proud separation from the British Empire. And what he saw, amazed him.
Dench is probably best known for his candid and humorous portrayal of his homeland, Great Britain, photographing people partying and drinking, often in excess and sometimes to their peril. But after having spent 10 years documenting and publishing three photo books on Britishness, Dench said he became “visually fatigued” and ready to take on a new challenge: photographing America.
“As a young man, there were very few things that penetrated my consciousness about America,” said Dench, who grew up in Weymouth, on the southern shore of England. One of them was “Dallas,” the hit soap opera that captivated the world from 1978 to 1991. Another one was “Debbie Does Dallas,” the cheer leading-themed adult film made in 1978, which ultimately inspired him to name his work “Dench Does Dallas.”
But as Dench became interested in photography and explored the works of American photo geniuses such as Robert Frank, Joel Sternfeld and William Eggleston, he realized that the country is “much more than high school pranks, toga parties and hot women running slowly,” and that there was “something broader, darker and more exciting to it than popular culture.”
Dench conquered the Dallas-Forth Worth Metroplex, the largest metropolitan area in Southern U.S., all without driving a car. Instead, he went around by public transportation, taxi and on foot, averaging about 12 miles a day in 95-degree heat.
“I am quite forensic as a photographer,” Dench said. “The more you walk, the more you see.”
He made a pilgrimage to Southfork Ranch, the setting of “Dallas,” the TV show, and explored Dealey Plaza, near where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He also got off the beaten path and watched police officers in Pleasant Groves, one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city, give children lessons on positive life choices, and visited Baby Dolls Saloon, a strip club near Harry Hines Boulevard, where most of Dallas’s adult entertainment venues can be found.
But nowhere impressed him more than Southlake, an affluent suburban city north of the Metroplex, ranked the ninth richest town in the U.S. by TIME magazine in 2014. Its picturesque town hall, castle-like mansions and meticulously mowed lawns with the Stars & Stripes flying ahead of Independence Day reminded him of movies like “The Truman Show.” “Hollywood couldn't have scripted a more perfect American town,” he said, “and the town may well have scripted Hollywood.”
With Dallas under his belt, Dench set his sights on San Francisco and Miami.
"San Francisco is a mind-mess of a city," Dench said. "I was embraced by strangers and threatened by them. People went out of their way to shout at me and out of their way to help."
He was startled by the Tenderloin district, just north of Market Street—rich in history but notorious for drugs, crime and homelessness. Dench learned that as housing prices skyrocketed in recent years, homelessness actually has become widespread across the entire city, despite it being one of the richest in the world.
“You can’t photograph a landmark without a hobo splayed across it,” Dench said. “Why would anyone want to escape from Alcatraz if the first place you reach is San Francisco?”
But no trip to the Bay Area is complete without wandering around the campus of the University of California‑Berkeley, home to 99 Olympic gold medalists, 32 libraries and 16 elements on the periodic table. Dench was so stunned by the university’s impressive campus and the alumni’s achievements that he felt compelled to check out his own Alma Mater in England. “I Google ‘notable University of Derby alumni’, my name comes up, which says it all really,” Dench joked.
In Miami, after chuffing on a cigar in Little Havana and studying the iconic art deco architecture in South Beach, Dench discovered online about a pool party in Sweetwater, a suburban city west of Miami, where he got “twerk fatigued” photographing party goers. "I’d never witnessed twerking firsthand before...I snapped the twerking; the men watching the twerking; the men squirting water at the twerkers; the flirting; the posturing, drinking and groups inhaling from Hookah’s," he said. "England isn’t big on outdoor swimming pool parties...This is what photography did—it got me in an area I might not have explored.”
Dench always makes his intentions clear to people when he photographs them. “I never shoot from the hip,” he said. “Most people are inviting, interested and engaging. Most people don't care I am there.”
The three cities are only the first chapters in his examination of America, whose diversity and expansiveness fascinate him. “If you are going to set out on a task to document a country, that is quite a statement to make, and it's going to take some time,” Dench said. His goal is to expand his footprint and create a visual record of all 50 states in the next 10 years, calling it “Dench Eye on America.”
Dench’s photographs of America are not the ones you find in travel brochures. They are witty, candid and up-in-your-face at times. But together they compose an honest portrait of the places he’s visited and what it means to be American.
For Dench, Americans are “the cousin across the Atlantic” that a Brit wrestles with from time to time. “We don't feel threatened by America, but we do feel challenged by it,” he said. “Every British photographer feels they should make a contribution to the visual landscape of America, and I hope Americans welcome that.”
Peter Dench is a British photographer represented by VERBATIM. He has over 20 years of experience in the advertising, editorial, corporate, portraiture and video fields of image making.