Before I launch into the substance of this book, I must admit two things. One,I get a little squeamish about the idea of owning a gun, for reasons I won’t delve into here. And two, Philadelphia-based photographer/author Kyle Cassidy is a friend of a friend, and so I had heard tales of the book-to-be long before it officially emerged.
However, my choice to write about Armed America has nothing to do with cronyism or any ideological stance; instead it is based on my complete absorption in the book each time I pick it up. I find myself peering into every corner of the richly detailed portraits, laughing at absurd scenes and out-of-control pets, marveling at the diversity of human self-expression and questioning my own perceptions of guns and gun ownership.
Evening gowns, easy chairs, combat boots, kilts, crosses, parrots, banjos, and yes, guns – the diverse portrayal of human experience is refreshingly unexpected with a pervasive sense of humor. Cassidy knows how to make the ride fun, expertly balancing a fun-loving, go-with-the-flow perspective with a clear appreciation for the people he photographs. In one image, a platinum-blond woman in a polka-dot dress leaps into the air, arms outstretched, adding a surreal slant to an otherwise straightforward family portrait. Several pages later, a shaggy-haired youth sits in a stark white room, 10 guns spread on the table and as many pizza boxes stacked in the corner. A camera-loving dog hogs the spotlight in another photo, center stage and drooling, while the owner chuckles in the background. A few images even have the theatrical vibe of a detective movie, mysteriously dark with fedoras and leather sofas, neon signs and smoky cigarettes.
Of course, not every image is otherworldly. There are plenty of the expected taxidermied animals and American flags. Entire families of gun-lovers pose in their living rooms, fathers with hunting rifles, children with air rifles, cats lounging on the carpet. People are surrounded by everyday objects in ordinary rooms, doing the sorts of things people usually do when pictures are taken. By avoiding studio contrivances, Cassidy allows the subjects to remain real people – they haven’t cleaned off tables or put on their best outfits. The cluttered (or in some cases, desolately bare) ordinariness of the scenes makes them fascinatingly compelling, because the ubiquitous guns seem ordinary as well, blending in as just another utensil or picture on the wall.
Each portrait is accompanied by a caption that gives people’s responses to the question, “Why do you own a gun?” From the very basic,”I like them,” to drawn-out descriptions of personal biographies, historical significance and political treatises, prevalent themes of second amendment rights and self-defense give way to the subtle differences of personal preference and social context. A history teacher likes having tangible artifacts to inspire his lectures. A chef wants to be able to hunt his own Thanksgiving turkey. Police officers and military personnel own weapons as a natural extension of their careers. People living in cities and suburbs alike feel safer having guns intheir homes and knowing how to use them for defense. There are collectors, target-shooters, hunters, people whose families have always owned guns, people with intense patriotism and a sense of entitlement as American citizens, people who like having a powerful “last resort.” As with the images, some of the responses are surprisingly comical or unexpected. A non-violent Buddhist sitting lotus-style with his AK-47 explains that he owns a gun so that he can confront his own nature and choose not to be violent. One young man only became interested in guns after seeing “Bowling for Columbine,” wanting to break the stigma attached to this inanimate object. A few frightening responses reflect the militant extremism of people exhorting their absolute right to armed rebellion in the face of socialists or fascists or their own government. And one woman, after her husband’s reply, says baldly, “I hate guns. Don’t get me started.”
The prevailing mood of the book, even with its range of visual and verbal expression, is one of moderation, of tolerance, of patriotic commitment to upholding founding principles. The juxtaposition of intricate portraits and thought-provoking statements creates a coffee table book that is both beautiful and highly relevant to current discussions, regardless of one’s opinions about violence or gun regulations. By placing weapons in a holistic context of home life and family and broadly considering the “Why?” of gun ownership, Armed America presents the possibility of dynamic engagement with a complex issue, rather than continuing a polarizing and stagnating debate. The people become REAL, while the guns, in spite of their omnipresence, fade into a comfortable background.
By: Melinda Steffy, for The Bulletin, August 10, 2007