Sean Hemmerle is a leading American contemporary documentary photographer. The Poughkeepsie, New York-based artist is best known for capturing the pathos of war zones around the world, and the urban decay of crumbling formerly industrial cities in the American rust belt.Read More
Born in Tempe, Arizona, Hemmerle spent four years serving in the United States Army (from 1984 to 1988), before attending the University of Miami. He later completed an MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1997. Since then he has established a reputation as an architectural and urban landscape photographer, and has attracted many commercial commissions.
Sean Hemmerle branched out to conflict photography in the early 2000s when he documented the World Trade Centre collapse. Since then, he has travelled to international conflict zones, including Baghdad, Kabul, Gaza, Beirut, and Juarez. In his coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the artist critically responded to the politics behind the wars.
In THEM (2017)—a photo book comprising a series of portraits he took in Iraq and Afghanistan (2002–2003)—Hemmerle compassionately represented ordinary people placed in dire circumstances by his own government. He took frontal, unscripted, black-and-white portrait images of soldiers, students, security guards, fixers, administrators, and merchants, among others. They stand amidst the backdrop of the rubble, ruins, and poverty now defining their homeland.
In his images of war-torn cities, Sean Hemmerle highlights the devastation but also dubious political motives of some military interventions. In Hospital and Oil Refinery, Baghdad (2002), the scene of a derelict, abandoned hospital with the smoking stacks of a functioning oil refinery in the background seemingly highlights the invading coalition's priorities in rebuilding Iraq.
Sean Hemmerle's photography has also focused on social issues in the United States. For the series 'Rust Belt I', Hemmerle documented the architectural carcass of the fallen American Industrial empire in the rust-belt areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, later also looking to settlements around New York's Erie Canal.
Across these decayed rust-belt landscapes, Sean Hemmerle poetically captured the crumbling architecture of abandoned factories and connected neighbourhoods, using light and colour to create a sombre, oxidised palette. The series also tells the stories of small communities carving a new life out of these places.
Architecture informs meaning as much as people do in Sean Hemmerle's images. Places and buildings have often been at the core of his photography, structurally and symbolically, from the ruins of Baghdad's architecture to the Orange County Government Centre's endangered Brutalist architecture ('Brutal Legacy', 2013).
In his 'Media Nodes' series, which he began in 2002, Sean Hemmerle photographed a number of newsrooms across the country, from large conglomerates like CNN to local papers like The Anniston Star of Anniston, Alabama, to highlight how the room's architecture indicated the media organisation's structure and personality.
In Hemmerle's recent 'Apart, Together' (2020) series for the New York Post, the architecture looms large over the near-empty streets, subways, hotels, and shops of New York City under lock-down. With the slogan of 'luck favours the well prepared', the artist traversed the city, taking shots that captured the quiet eeriness of the unique historical moment.
Sean Hemmerle's work has been exhibited in gallery and institutional shows and major art events across the United States and internationally. His work has also featured in major publications, including Time Magazine, Metropolis, and The New York Times Magazine.
My City Recently Removed, Galerie Julian Sander, Cologne (2020); THEM, Galerie Julian Sander, Cologne (2018); Brutalist Architecture, Front Room, New York (2014); Solitary Structures, Galerie Julian Sander, Bonn, Germany (2013); Rust Belt, Front Room, New York (2013); Where Lines Are Drawn, James Francis Trezza, New York (2006); Three Generations of High Explosives, Front Room, New York (2002).
Scenes in the City, Galerie Julian Sander, Cologne (2020); Civilization: The Way We Live Now, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, Gwacheon (2018); Concrete, Galerie Julian Sander, Los Angeles (2013); Contact/s:30—The Art of Photojournalism, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney (2007); War Fare, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago (2006).
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2021