T4 : The great American road trip

The American road trip has been something creatives have returned to over the years. There's the gasoline stations painted by Hopper and Ruscha and the photographs of many others (see this post), there's movies like It happened one night, Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise and then there's (Get your kicks on) Route 66 from Nat King Cole (and covered by others) and of course Jack Kerouac's On the Road. In terms of photography, we can actually go beyond the gas stations and see that the road trip is almost a rite of passage. The road trip seems to be as American as apple pie (not sure how American this actually is, in real terms). There's even companies set up to make your own American road trip something of an easier proposition to organise. I've fancied it myself for many a year; the California coast road, a tour of New England and yes, Route 66 (or what's left of it). Of those photographers that have done the road trip thing (and there are too many to mention them all), the following are a few I'm aware of.

Robert Frank's seminal book Les Americains (The Americans) is up there as one of the most widely known photobooks ever produced, it's been an inspiration to many artists including the likes of Martin Parr. The project he proposed was to travel the country freely and produce a visual study of the people that took 8 months in the mid-1950s. Almost 800 rolls of film showed "popular culture, music, religion, the hollow mass media, racial tensions, class tensions, and the all encompassing obsession with the automobile." (Campany, p42). It's not really about the road, it's about the people, but it was only possible because of the road.

Frank 2
Robert Frank, Drive in Movie, Detroit (The Americans)

Frank 1
Robert Frank, US285, New Mexico (The Americans)

An interesting contemporary riff on Frank's book was recently done by
Mishka Henner; in Less Americains he has removed much of the content from the photographs to produce "less"... Perhaps a little to extreme for my taste, but a truly interesting concept and body of work.

Less Americains
Mishka Henner,
Less Americains
(from http://www.mishkahenner.com/Less-Americains)

Stephen Shore will perhaps be primarily known for being one of the colour innovators. He once said that America was "made for long trips", and I guess that means it's a big old place. England isn't made for long trips, well, not very long ones anyway. For me, Shore's use of colour (along with a couple of others) is something that now represents America in the 70s, although I never saw it first hand the period has a certain 'feel' to it, the light has a certain quality. Shore also tends to capture something of the distance and openness in his photographs that I like and seek for myself. An early project, Uncommon Places, features about 700 photographs shot over 11 years, which were edited down to 49 (often but not exclusively intersections and roadsides) for the exhibition in 1982.

Shore 2
Stephen Shore, Sutter Street and Crestline Road, Fort Worth, Texas, June 3, 1976 (Uncommon Places)

Shore 1
Stephen Shore, US2, Ironwood, Michigan, July 9, 1973 (Uncommon Places)

There is something I really like in
Todd Hido's A Road Divided. They're incredibly poetic for a start, bringing to mind many experiences of being in a car, the windscreen covered in condensation. Other than the condensation, they're ostensibly of "nothing", that thing that I like to photograph myself, nothing except a nondescript piece of road, a hint of a tree or some road furniture. It's minimal, muted and above all it captures that sort of soft light that seems to be Hido's "thing". This is all about the space between the gasoline stations, the motels and all of the other things that appear to be the subject of the other photographers that work the road trip.

Hido 2
Todd Hido, A Road Divided

Todd Hido, #7557 (A Road Divided)

Other photographs of the American road trip include:

Alec Soth

Soth 1
Alec Soth,
Cadillac Motel, 2006 (From here to there: Alec Soth's America)

Soth 2
Alec Soth,
Harper's Ferry, 2002 (L) Cemetery, Fountain Way, Wisconsin, 2002 (R) (From here to there: Alec Soth's America)

Soth 3
Alec Soth,
Thirty-Three theatres and a Funeral Home, 2006 (From here to there: Alec Soth's America)

Lee Friedlander

Friedlander 1
Lee Friedlander, America by Car

Friedlander 2
Lee Friedlander,
untitled (America by Car)

Joel Sternfield

Joel Sternfeld, After a flash flood, Rancho Mirage, California, July 1979 (The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip)

Christian Patterson

Patterson 1
Christian Patterson, Untitled (Redheaded Peckerwood)

Patterson 2
Christian Patterson, Untitled (Redheaded Peckerwood)

Shinya Fujiwara

Shinya Fujiwara, Untitled (The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip)

One of my favourite road trip books actually comes from Japan; Yutaka Takahashi's Toshi-e (Towards the City).

Takanashi 1
Yutaka Takanashi, Toshi-e (Towards the City)

takanashi 2
Yutaka Takanashi,
Untitled (Toshi-e)

In England, there's shorter versions - Paul Graham's The Great North Road, or Simon Roberts' We English for example. I'll maybe add something about these at a later date.


Campany, D (2014)
The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip. New York. Aperture Foundation.

Frank, R (2008)
The Americans. Göttingen. Steidl.

Friedlander, L (2010)
America by Car. New York. Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.

Hido, T (2010)
A Road Divided. Portland. Nazraeli Press LLC.

Patterson, C (2011)
Redheaded Peckerwood. London. Mack

Shore, S (2004)
Uncommon Places: The complete works. 2008 edition. London. Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Soth, A (2010)
From here to there: Alec Soth's America. Minneapolis. Walker Art Center.

Takanashi, Y (2010)
Toshi-e (Towards the City). New York. Errata Editions

Mishka Henner - http://www.mishkahenner.com

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