Black and white photograph of a person sat holding a pole above their head and another person draped over a chair, in the Four Pillars book by Eli Durst

Photographer Eli Durst visualises self-help America

Inspired by his time in the company of a faith-based self-help group, Eli Durst’s photo book, The Four Pillars, offers a partly staged portrayal of suburbanites searching for meaning

Texas-based photographer Eli Durst examines suburbia and social conditions in his work, and his new book, The Four Pillars, sits firmly at the intersection of those two themes.

Several years ago, Durst began to spend time with a faith-based self-help group attended by American suburbanites who had become disillusioned or directionless. The founder of that group gave a lecture which inspired the title of the book. Durst chose to use this phrase as the title, as it embodies “the language of self-help and self-actualisation” while remaining an ambiguous and generic term (“try googling ‘the four pillars’,” he says). “It’s open-ended but also clearly references the desire for a path, a guide for how to live, which I think people crave.”

Black and white portrait of a person wearing a suit sweeping their hair back, in the Four Pillars book by Eli Durst
All images © Eli Durst 2022 courtesy Loose Joints
Black and white photograph of two people kneeling on the ground in an embrace, as another person watches on, in the Four Pillars book by Eli Durst

Many of the images are based in social settings, both pleasurable (county fairs, amateur theatre) and practical (pregnancy groups, team bonding classes). Even though the photographs unravel in communal contexts, Durst manages to isolate people within those scenarios, directing our attention to the individual’s expression and forcing us to consider the conditions that may have led them to this point.

Compared to Durst’s first book The Community – which captured scout meetings and corporate team building in America’s community spaces – “this series is less about the group literally and more about the ideas they discussed,” he explains. For instance, “feeling unfulfilled in their suburban American lives, a desire to better know themselves, and the ways in which social pressures have restricted their paths or options”.

The idea of invention is in many ways central to self-improvement practices, and invention in turn shaped how Durst created the body of work.

Some of the photographs are entirely set up, while others aren’t staged at all (or at least, not by Durst). The images shot in the self-defence classes, for example, involved only minor intervention from the photographer. “Some of the images, like the one of the acting classes at the university where I teach, are what I consider to be documentary photography of staged exercises,” he says. “Other images I restaged or altered … to create a greater sense of ambiguity or defamiliarisation – to try to portray something quotidian in a new strange way that asks us to reconsider its significance.”

Black and white photograph of a group walking in unison as one person looks to the camera, in the Four Pillars book by Eli Durst
Black and white photograph of two topless people, one lying on the ground while another looks at a snake wrapped around their next, , in the Four Pillars book by Eli Durst
Photograph shows a poster that reads 'Are you embarrassed by your wealth?', in the Four Pillars book by Eli Durst

The inconspicuous blend of real and unreal was both a creative and a practical choice. He recalls being “moved by how members of the self-help group would openly weep in front of each other”.

“Sticking a camera into someone’s face while they’re being so vulnerable is obviously problematic,” he says. “So for one image, I hired actors to cry on command together. It was completely staged but also became a deeply emotional experience. In many ways, the work is about complicating the reductive dichotomy we have in photography of staged vs candid, truth vs fiction.”

Black and white image shows a person pulling a strong pose in underwear stood next to another looking down at the floor, in the Four Pillars book by Eli Durst
Black and white photograph of two people, in the Four Pillars book by Eli Durst

Durst explains that his practice is informed by the work of photographers such as Chris Killip, Deana Lawson, Michael Schmidt and Collier Schorr, but more than anything, says that The Four Pillars takes after vernacular imagery – “the holiday card, the maternity shoot, the instructional demo”.

“I’m interested in these forms because they complicate the simplistic photographic dichotomy of candid vs constructed; everyone knows that when a smiling family poses for a holiday card, they are re-enacting a performance, embodying an image they have seen countless times before. It is an aspirational image but one that contains deeper truths about who we are and what we desire.”

Black and white photograph of someone measuring a baby's head, in the Four Pillars book by Eli Durst
Black and white photograph of two people stood back to back, propping sheets of paper up between their bodies, in the Four Pillars book by Eli Durst
Black and white photograph of a lone horse, in the Four Pillars book by Eli Durst

The Four Pillars by Eli Durst is published by Loose Joints;;