Series: USA Film Retrospective

This is a series of articles featuring photographs mainly taken in 1990s using a variety of film cameras, ranging from compact cameras such as the Canon Sure Shot to SLRs such as the Pentax PZ-70.

Growing up as a teenager in the 1970s, we watched a lot of American TV shows, mainly sitcoms. I remember my mum watching Peyton Place, then later on Dallas. We kids grew up watching things like All in the Family, Green Acres, Happy Days, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons. Much later on, I remember Eight is Enough, Family Ties and Mork and Mindy. Needless to say, these shows created a mental image of the United States as mainly surburban and white, full of happy, affluent families. America truly was Great.

I started realising Americans actually had black people from watching things like Diff’rent Strokes, and then the seminal mini series Roots. Even then, I wasn’t aware of issues like the civil rights movement until much later. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, America never was completely great. There was the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, Watergate, … But still, America seemed like a magical place, the most technologically advanced and powerful nation in the world, and therefore we all assumed the kindest and most culturally sophisticated.

I have not visited the USA much in the last 20 years (and not at all in the last 15), so I can’t speak for what America looks like today, but I used to visit it regularly in the 1990s, when I was working for an American company and had a visa that allowed me multiple entries into the country and indefinite stays. My first visit was to Los Angeles in 1993 on a business trip, and I was looking forward to Hollywood, Rodeo Drive, Santa Monica, Venice Beach … all these places that I have only heard about until then.

The City of the Angels certainly met my expectations. I was staying near El Segundo, and we would often drive around on weekends. In retrospect, we lived and mingled in an affluent, professional, middle class, white bubble. I remember eating huge portions and gaining a lot of weight in various restaurants, visiting glittering malls, having a good time. However, even then I noticed inequality. Hovels next to skyscrapers. The people who clean the offices, the malls, the hotels.

I did not meet or interact with a single black person until years later on a different business trip. I was filling up my rental car at a gas station in South San Francisco before heading out to the airport to return home. A black man approached me asking for money. I suppose living in my privileged bubble, I probably should have felt afraid. But I wasn’t. He clearly meant no harm. But suddenly I remembered all those episodes from Roots. And the dawning realisation that those kind of events are not just history, inequality still exists in America, and that the reason I have not interacted with blacks before isn’t just due to chance, blacks were still systematically excluded from the bubble I was in, perhaps not by actual segregation but by economics and opportunity.

I felt really sorry for the man. I knew I couldn’t reverse inequality, but I said to him I was leaving the country and I took out most of the cash in my wallet and gave them all to him. He was surprised, but very grateful. The attendant (who was also black) at the gas station saw this and was quite touched. He thanked me and said “There but for the grace of God goes I.”

I stopped visiting the US when I no longer worked for an American company, but there was the occasional trip to visit a supplier, or to attend a conference. We visited the US on vacation in 1997 and did typical tourist things on both the east and west coasts. After September 11, 2001, I remember visiting the US on a business trip and everything had changed. I was no longer welcome in the country, and waited long hours in airport queues along with other “foreigners.” I didn’t like the experience, and haven’t visited much since then. I do remember attending a conference in 2007, but the feeling that I wasn’t entirely welcome was still there, and I haven’t been back since.

I didn’t take a lot of photographs despite all my trips. In those days, film was (and still is) expensive, and not to be wasted on spurious shots. Weight restrictions meant I often didn’t carry a camera, or carried a small compact. However, recently I scanned all my film negatives, and discovered quite a lot of photographs from America. Most were from our vacation in 1997, but some were from business trips.

I have decided to write this series of articles showcasing some of the photographs I found interesting. None of them are good quality, and many suffer from aging artefacts in the last 30 years. However, they depict a period of time that I recall as happy days, not only for myself, but for America (at least, in the bubble I was in). Some of them are of places that no longer exist, and some will have changed dramatically in the last 25 years or so. I hope you will enjoy these articles. As new articles are published, they will be included as links here.

Star Trek Adventure

Star Trek Adventure

Chris Tham2021-07-031 min read
Beam aboard the bridge of the Starship ENTERPRISE. Your mission? To explore the limits of your imagination with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. To battle Klingons, space creatures and alien superbeings! To boldly go where no man has gone before.
Universal Studios Hollywood

Universal Studios Hollywood

Chris Tham2021-07-051 min read
Universal Studios Hollywood is a unique theme park in the 1990s in that it was based on a real film studio backlot, and the Backlot Studio Tour actually started in 1915.
Visiting a Data Centre in the 1990s

Visiting a Data Centre in the 1990s

Chris Tham2021-07-071 min read
They sure don’t build “Big Iron” computers like they used to. This is a data centre located in Los Angeles in the 1990s.
Long Beach and Queen Mary

Long Beach and Queen Mary

Chris Tham2021-07-091 min read
On my first visit to the Los Angeles in 1993 (business trip), we used to drive along the coast on the weekends. One weekend we stopped by at Long Beach to visit Queen Mary.
Sherman Oaks Galleria

Sherman Oaks Galleria

Chris Tham2021-07-111 min read
We visited this iconic shopping mall, one of the birthplaces of “Valley” culture and used in several films, several months before it was severely damaged by the Northridge earthquake and it’s eventual decline.
Disneyland 1997

Disneyland 1997

Chris Tham2021-07-131 min read
This is a nostalgic look at the original Disneyland in Anaheim, built by Walt Disney himself, in the late 1990s before it was expanded and an additional theme park (Disney California Adventure Park) was built on the original carpark.
Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

Chris Tham2021-07-151 min read
We drove the famous Pacific Coast Highway, or State Route 1, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, in 1997 as part of our USA vacation.
San Francisco, CA

San Francisco, CA

Chris Tham2021-07-171 min read
San Francisco is probably my favourite city in the USA. I don’t know why, but I feel really at home here, and for some reason most people there think I’m a local so obviously there’s a connection.
Twin Peaks (San Francisco)

Twin Peaks (San Francisco)

Chris Tham2021-07-191 min read
Twin Peaks offers the best views of San Francisco, probably the most beautiful city in the USA.
Dayton, OH

Dayton, OH

Chris Tham2021-07-211 min read
I visited Dayton for a quick business trip in 1994.
Winchester House

Winchester House

Chris Tham2021-07-231 min read
For years, I have mentioned the Winchester House in my talks and presentations, as an analogy of what happens when an organisation does not have a cohesive strategy, so of course I have visited the actual house many times.
National Mall

National Mall

Chris Tham2021-07-251 min read
As tourists, we visited the National Mall at Washington, DC, in 1997. Recent events have of course heightened security here, so these photographs are a homage to a more innocent decade.
Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Chris Tham2021-07-271 min read
A famous tourist attraction and spectacular sight, Niagara Falls are actually a group of falls straddling the border between the USA and Canada.
New York, NY

New York, NY

Chris Tham2021-07-291 min read
I’ve always loved New York, from perusing coffee table photographic books about the city (I think those books made me want to be a photographer) as a child.
Empire State Building (New York

Empire State Building (New York

Chris Tham2021-07-311 min read
The ending of the film Sleepless in Seattle was set in the observation deck of the Empire State Building. From here, it’s possible to get 360° views of Manhattan Island.
Mulholland Drive on a Mustang

Mulholland Drive on a Mustang

Chris Tham2021-08-021 min read
We rented a Mustang and took it to Mulholland Drive in Hollywood Hills, ending overlooking Hollywood Bowl.
Chicago from the Air

Chicago from the Air

Chris Tham2021-08-041 min read
These images were taken from window seat of an aircraft descending into Chicago using one of the earliest digital cameras, the Kodak DC220 with a 1.2 megapixel resolution.
Dallas 2007

Dallas 2007

Chris Tham2021-08-061 min read
My most recent trip to the USA is to Dallas in 2007 to attend conference. For some reason I bought my camera with me, primarily because I remember all the episodes of Dallas my mum watched in the 1970s.

Posted by Chris Tham

Chris Tham is a co-founder of Visual Voyager Pty Ltd, the Principal Voigtländer Ambassador for Mainline Photographics and a Workshop Instructor for Mainline Photo Academy. She brings over 35 years of experience as a photographer to her role, starting with a Yashica rangefinder belonging to her dad, joining the Photography Club in school, and developing her own photos. More recently, Chris has been taking photos during her travels, and as a result has experienced some of the most interesting places in the world. Chris focuses on nature, street, and urban architecture subjects in her photography.