Lorena Lohr’s Beautiful Photos of Memphis and the Midwest

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4 Lorena Lohr - Untitled, 2018 copy
Lorena Lohr, Untitled, 2018© Lorena Lohr, Courtesy of Cob Gallery

A new exhibition at Cob Gallery, Tonight Lounge, documents Lorena Lohr’s film photographs taken in the Midwest and Memphis

When I speak to Lorena Lohr on the phone, she has just arrived in Paris, where she’s been renting a home, from London, where her darkroom is. Our conversation, however, is about the photographs Lohr has taken in the United States – a country she has been documenting for the last decade – which are going on show at Cob Gallery this week, in an exhibition titled Tonight Lounge. “I’ve been going back and forth from Paris to London on the bus – which is something I’m very used to,” the British-Canadian photographer tells me, referencing her preferred way of journeying around the US: by bus and train.

Previous trips have seen Lohr capture fleeting, overlooked details in Mexican border towns like El Paso on 35mm film as part of her ongoing series Ocean Sands. Lohr is drawn to things that might otherwise be missed: she hones in on fading signs above stores or on walls, empty tables in diners (often with cups of half-drunk soda not yet cleared away), pastel pink tiling or desert-like shrubbery. “I’ve always been looking at these traces that people leave behind, and how they’re a record of people’s lives, the stories that they tell and the things that people make to sustain a life,” Lohr explains. “They’re very subtle but they’re everywhere – and not just in the small towns that I have been focusing on.” 

Tonight Lounge features photographs taken in Memphis and the Midwest – a departure for Lohr from her usual geography of the USA’s Southern states – earlier this year and in 2018. In the casino towns of Nevada, small towns in Montana, Nebraska and Colorado, Cheyenne in Wyoming and Memphis, Tennessee, she focused on what she’s come to call “a universal language”: the traces of people, and “intimations of some kind of desire or someone striving to make something different”. There is a sadness to the sun-bleached powdery pink walls and empty leather banquettes, and a sense of something left unsaid. “I think that’s important because people say too much,” Lohr says. “These places are nuanced and every one has a highly distinct character but we do overlook things.” Such character traits manifest in a variety of textures throughout Tonight Lounge: a rough beige wall, neon signs overcome with rust, and shiny wipe-clean plastic covering a plush turquoise bed (at Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, where Lohr wasn’t intending to take pictures but couldn’t resist).

Lohr came across these same small markers of people and their stories when she travelled around Memphis, too. Considerably bigger than other towns she had photographed before, Lohr “was interested in looking at cliché, and exploring places that had been quite undocumented for many years”. “The narratives that you find in rooms, where people had come and gone and left objects in a certain arrangement, give you a sense of history at its smallest scale,” she says. “That also relates to a bigger city, a city that is steeped in cliché, and the symbols that have already been explored in a lot of Americana and rock and roll mythology. Even in places where we have a lot of existing documents, there’s still something to be found – nothing is ever fully discovered.” In Memphis, which Lohr describes as a “fractured place”, the signs and details the image-maker was drawn to hinted at “a sense of preservation and illustrating these memories of bygone era”.

Travelling by train so extensively, Lohr thinks that her work could amount to a sort of alternative train guide, illustrating as she has so many of the towns found along the USA’s tracks. By walking through these towns (Lohr arrived at the Memphis train station and walked through the city to get to Graceland, which took her four hours) she is able to “see what’s in between” and discover the overlooked details that she favours capturing. Lohr has long produced artist books of her work, but Cob Gallery is publishing a first retrospective book alongside the exhibition, bound, very aptly, in dusty pink leatherette (“someone said it looks a bit like a steakhouse menu,” she laughs). The book compiles work made in this way from the last decade, but is also something of a starting point. “I think it will be going on for as long as I can do it,” Lohr says, thinking of the next ten years.

Tonight Lounge by Lorena Lohr is at Cob Gallery, London, from December 5, 2019 – January 11, 2020. The book of the same name is published by Cob Gallery.