The Open Road: Photography & the American Road Trip

Aperture, 2014

Survey of photographic road trips in America, 1906 to the present.

Published by Aperture

Winner of the Alice Award 2015 

Shortlisted for the Krazsna-Krausz Award

French version –  Road Trips: Voyages photographiques à travers l’Amérique, published by Textuel

Spanish version – En La Carretera, published by LA FABRICA


The Open Road Aperture catalogue page









David Campany interviewed by Leica blog:

Q: The Open Road: Photography & the American Road Trip is the first book to explore the photographic road trip as a genre. What inspired you to bring the various photographers together in this book? Why do you think it’s important to examine this genre closely and why now?

A: I began the book knowing that quite a lot of the very best photography made in America over the last century has been made on the road. So rather thinking about road trips and then looking for projects, I came at it the other way: wondering why the road trip has been so central to American photography. Why now? That’s what I wondered when my publisher Aperture invited me to put this book together. I was amazed that it hadn’t really been done before. But now is a very good time because photography finally has a mature and curious attitude to its own past. It’s fascinating to see younger photographers responding to and developing challenges that were faced sixty, eighty, ninety years ago. The other arts have had that disposition for a long time but it’s surprisingly recent in photography. So The Open Road brings together three or four generations, in conversation with each other. And through this you can really grasp the continuities and the changes in America and its pictures.

Q: Each chapter explores a different photographer’s work including Joel Meyerowitz and Robert Frank. How were the photographers and images curated and chosen to be in this book? As a curator, do you have a specific approach or rules you use?

A: The aim was actually to avoid assembling a ‘who’s who’. I felt it should be a ‘what’s what’, led by great images rather than great names. In all my books I try to be guided by the photographs, first and foremost. Beyond this, I was interested in showing the range. The genre, if road trip photography really is a genre, includes everything from visual poetry and joy rides, to self-discoveries and political polemics. There are no rules.

Q: Did you learn anything during that process that surprised you or that you particularly liked? Or are there any interesting tidbits or a little known fact that you discovered about the photographs and/or photographers while writing this book that our readers may find interesting?

A: Well, I had one suspicion confirmed and that was the influence of Walker Evans on just about every photographer in the book. Evans never made a specifically photographic road trip but the car was crucial to his work as he explored America’s small towns and idiosyncrasies in the 1930s. And his book American Photographs (1938) really opened up the idea that a traveling photographer might be able to shoot and sequence pictures as a response to the nation as a whole. You can see Evans’ sensibility in so many subsequent projects: Robert Frank’s The Americans, Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces, Jacob Holdt’s American Pictures, Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects, Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture. And photographers like Justine Kurland have really deepened and extended Evans’s idiom. Evans is the quiet giant.

Q: As a non-American yourself, why do you think the American open road is such an attraction for American and foreign photographers alike?

A: The myth of space and the space of myth.

Q: Have you ever taken an American road trip? If so, can you tell us a bit about your experience? If not, has the process of writing for this book inspired you to take one in the future?

A: Yes I have. I think the most fun road trip I took was in 1999 with a good friend. It was very much a photographic trip. It confirmed our fascination, our horror, our sense of possibility, of the sublime and the banal. And forced us to confront the clichés in our heads and the clichés out there. I think that’s why most photographers go on the road.

Q: Aperture Foundation has created this upcoming benefit party based around The Open Road book and as a tribute to Robert Frank. Can you tell us what you’re looking forward to most about the benefit and about how your relationship with Aperture came to be?

A: It’ll be a great night. The musician Billy Bragg is playing. Like me he’s from Essex, England. Unlike me he’s been writing songs on a road trip with the photographer Alec Soth. The Kills are playing too. And I feel honored to have been invited to say a few words about Robert Frank. That’s quite a challenge because so much has been said already. But if I follow Frank’s own worldview – be honest and avoid everything phony – I’ll be OK. His work is important to a lot of people, but I doubt it means exactly the same thing for any two of them. I’ll talk about what it means to me and hope it resonates.

My relationship with Aperture goes back quite a way. The day I graduated from college I was offered an internship with them, but I wasn’t able to take it up. For years it seemed Aperture would be the path not taken. Then about eight years ago they asked if I would write for a book of John Divola’s photographs. Since then I’ve contributed to a few books and I often write for their magazine.

Q: As a writer, what draws you to covering the subject of photography? How do you go about interpreting a photographer’s work for the reader? In your bio, it also mentions that you’re an artist – what medium do you like to work with?

A: That’s a profoundly difficult question for me. I think about it a lot. Could you ask me again in about thirty years?  I do know that I couldn’t write about photography if I didn’t make photographs myself. I exhibit that work occasionally, or publish it, but it doesn’t burn in me to be a recognized photographer and that’s very freeing. If I can be with photography, that’s enough. Writing, photographing, curating shows, editing, teaching.

Q: The introduction you wrote for the book, “traces the rise of road culture in America and considers photographers on the move across the country and across the century, from the early 1900s to present day.” Photography and America have both changed drastically in that span of time. What changes stood out to you and was there a common thread among the different works and different time periods besides the inherent theme of the book?

A: ‘Motoring’ and the ‘road trip’ were marketed as consumerist experiences almost from the beginning of the automobile. What’s striking is that nearly all the really great road trip photography, at least from the 1920s onwards, is actually quite critical of American consumerist culture and materialism. Sometimes explicitly, sometime implicitly, but it’s always there. It’s as if the criticality and the great artistry, the disappointment and the hope, inform each other.  I think that’s a particularly North American phenomenon. It has everything to do with the fact that the country is the great social experiment, and as such it needs monitoring. Artists do that monitoring, and they often do it best when they are simply expressing their feelings about what they see.

Q: Do you think that the American road trip will continue to be a popular theme in photography in the next century? If so, how will it be different from the work of the previous century as covered in this book?

A: I can’t make predictions. The other day I was listening to a catchy song from the early 1990s by Donald Fagen called Trans Island Skyway. It’s about a road trip in the near future. His car is steam-powered. There’s a hydroponic farm in the back that provides fresh food all year. It can drive itself when necessary. And there’s always something to discover. That’s one version of the future. The other might be that we do it all via Google Street View. But actually Google Street View isn’t all that new. I begin The Open Road with a discussion of an extraordinary series of books from the 1900s. They were visual aids for intrepid long-distance drivers, each featuring hundreds of photos of every junction between major cities, and in reverse shot for coming back!

Q: The book starts off with the question “Is America even imaginable without the road trip?” Without giving too much from the book away, what’s your answer to this question and why?

A: Hmmm. My answer would be ‘yes and no’. It’s a rhetorical question that sets the book in motion. I can’t tell you anything more. A boy’s gotta have some secrets.

Thank you for your time, David!

– Leica Internet Team


A Short History of the Long Road

by David Campany


A Country Made for Long Trips


Joy rides, voyages of discovery, wanderings, migrations, surveys, polemics, travel diaries, and assessments of the nation. Is America imaginable without the road trip? Without everything the road trip implies: the cars, the buses, the motels, hotels, campsites, diners and gas stations? Is it imaginable without the camera that records, expresses, and promotes such journeys? When the American photographer Stephen Shore declared that, “Our country is made for long trips,” was he being obvious, merely noting that in a place of such size epic travel is inevitable, or was it something more profound? America’s newcomers had made long trips to get here. They had the appetite and the experience of distance. More importantly, might we not say that as a nation formed at the onset of an industrial revolution, perhaps even the concept of modern America presumes the need for long trips? The means of travel may come and go, but the impulse is constant.

Whatever the truth of these questions, when photography arrived in the 1830s it was into a world of expansion and exploration, a world in which space was not just to be conquered and mastered but contemplated and incorporated as an imaginative resource. The long trip would always be as poetic as it was practical. The Open Road is a survey of photographers on the move across America and across the last century. Most of us think of the road trip as starting fully formed with Robert Frank and his landmark photographic book The Americans (1959). This essay explores the cultural context leading up to that moment and is followed by a series of portfolios that show the various directions taken by photographers and artists after Frank. Setting out by car for a few weeks, a few months, or even indefinitely, these photographers have produced chronicles of experience and change.


As soon as it was possible to cross the country by automobile, such journeys became if not a final frontier then at least a marker, a way to feel the expanse of the continent and achieve some kind of grasp, however personal or provisional, of its variety and magnitude. At start of the twentieth century the majority of America’s intercity roads were a mess, having fallen into disuse and disrepair as a result of the shift from horse and cart to the extensive rail network. Beyond the urban centers over 90 percent of roads were still dirt. A few had surfaces of gravel or shell. They were dusty when dry, quagmires when wet, and frequently impassible (see fig. x). Railroads had become more than a transport system. In cutting through mountains and conquering rivers, they were the symbolic heart of America’s identity as an industrializing nation. By 1903 there were 250,000 miles of rail track but only 160,000 miles of badly surfaced roads, and just 141 miles of asphalt or concrete highway.[1] A cross-country trip in one of America’s 4,000 automobiles would take an intrepid driver about two months. Despite the challenge, the promise of such trips was irresistible. While rail had bound the country together and made travel communal, the automobile reignited the pioneer spirit for a new century that would come to be defined by individual freedoms and independent venture.

Car production grew rapidly, promoted by intensive campaigns presenting the automobile as a vital tool of commerce and a new source of leisure (see fig. x). Meanwhile a wholesale shift in photographic culture was well under way, with equally comprehensive promotion to get the country buying mass-market cameras with easy to use roll film. In 1888 George Eastman of Kodak prompted a major move from professional to amateur photography with his legendary slogan, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.” Travel and picture taking were now in the hands of the people, or so the advertising went. More to the point, with its novel speeds and fresh encounters, travel itself began to heighten experience and sharpen the senses, often in ways that would permit the world to strike the beholder as images. Advertisers understood this very early, and the act of photographing could be marketed as a natural component of travel. The camera would both record the road trip experience and help to define it.

Let us begin our journey with a remarkably early and innovative experiment in publishing. Launched in 1906 the Photo-Auto Guide series of illustrated books replaced conventional maps with hundreds of photographs taken from a driver’s point of view. Each book is dedicated to a popular route and shows every junction, bridge, and landmark along the way (and back again, with reverse views).[2] In the absence of consistent signage, or even agreed names for the longer roads, a visual aid was useful. Moreover, motorists could experience the thoroughly modern novelty of previewing the road ahead in photographic form. Twenty-five Photo-Auto Guides were issued over five years, the most ambitious illustrating the epic drive between New York and Chicago (fig. x). The venture, however, was a victim of its own success. By 1910 there were about 130,000 automobiles in use, plus 35,000 commercial trucks and 150,000 motorcycles. They so transformed the roadside environment that the photographs were soon outdated. A century later, the Photo-Auto Guidesare extraordinarily rich documents not just of the look and feel of the early years of motoring but of the desire to put the camera at the service of the road trip. They are also uncanny precursors of the seamless image environment we now associate with Google’s Street View, more on which at the other end of this history.

By 1930 there were 26.7 million automobiles in America, one for every 4.5 people. The pace and extent of the change was breathless and unparalleled. Interest in the situation spread around the world. Several photographers from overseas came to America to produce books that would satisfy the mass curiosity. Generally these were picturesque albums of beautiful landscapes interspersed with shots of awesome bridges, roads, and skyscrapers.[3] The most successful and bestselling was Romantic America (1927) by E. O. Hoppé, who was at the time the most celebrated and highest paid photographer in the world. He took several cross-country trips by car and the result was a book of forms in steel, concrete, and glass interspersed with epic images of nature. In the hope that the book would outlast the ever-quicker turnover of fashions, the publisher excluded most of Hoppé’s images of people and cars. Nevertheless, Hoppé understood that the truth of modern life is often felt in the little details and signs of change. Clothing. Gesture. Temporary spaces. Makeshift structures. New vehicles. Many of his unpublished images (fig. x) show the fascination with commonplace scenes that would come to characterize the work of key figures in the history of the road trip, including Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Stephen Shore.

The car soon became the preeminent symbol of transition, not so much for its evolving styles and technology but for the effects it had upon its environment. As media theorist Marshall McLuhan put it years later:

With a motor car, most people are interested in changing designs or patterns of the car. They pay only incidental attention to the huge service environments of roads, oil companies, filling stations. . . . It never occurs to them that this figure of the car might generate a huge ground of new services far bigger than the figure was ever thought to be.[4]


The “figure of the car” is inseparable from the “ground” of the world that is changed around it. In 1930 the Swiss journalist Felix Moeschlin made a three-month, 12,500-mile tour of America in the company of amateur photographer Dr. Kurt Richter. The aim was to address the new changes in the country. With 154 images, their book Amerika vom Auto Aus (America from the Car) takes in not only landscapes and big cities but also small towns, gas stations, Chinese communities, African American workers in the rural South, and the growing gulf between rich and poor (see figs. xx). The accomplished photographs are grouped into sequences that function as mini visual essays on these themes while also describing very directly the presence of automobiles and their impact. The authors’ car is the unifying symbol; its hood, windows and outline appear throughout their book. Richter recorded the slick new surfaces rolling out over the old dirt roads while Moeschlin noted how the car that makes it possible to cross the country with great freedom has shaped profoundly what there is to see. The car promises unimaginable access but brings unprecedented change.


The Great American Roadside

Automobiles heralded a revolution on many fronts: social, technical, aesthetic, cultural ecological and financial. In 1934 the writer James Agee was commissioned by Fortune magazine to produce a report on the commercial implications of the automobile. Titled “The Great American Roadside,” his long essay is an idiosyncratic meander, written in a visionary and fragmentary style entirely suited to the new subject. Lists of facts and poetic observations describe “the most hugely extensive market the human race has ever set up to tease and tempt and take money from the human race . . . a young but great industry that will gross, in this, the fifth year of the great world depression, something like $3,000,000,000.” [5] Ice cream parlors, hot dog stands, quick-stop cafes, and cheap holiday cabins were sprouting around local landmarks, all advertised to the passing motorist. It was unstoppable, giving rise among newly mobile citizens to a whole new culture that was demotic and rootless. Provincial differences were being subsumed by the first American popular culture that could truly call itself national. It was not production that had united the country but consumption, propelled by the millions of motorists.[6]

At the center of Agee’s essay is the auto camp cabin, the forerunner of the modern motel. Variations on the doghouse, these single-room structures in wood or adobe clustered along the approaches to major leisure destinations.

It is six in the afternoon and you are still on the road, worn and weary from the three hundred miles of driving. Past you flashes a sign DE LUXE CABINS ONE MILE. Over the next hill you catch the vista of a city, smack in your path, sprawling with all its ten thousand impediments to motion—its unmarked routes, its trolley cars, its stop and go signs, its No Parking markers. Somewhere in the middle of it is a second-class commercial hotel, whose drab lobby and whose cheerless rooms you can see with your eyes closed. Beyond, around the corner, eyes still closed, you see the local Ritz with its doormen and its bellboys stretching away in one unbroken greedy grin. You see the unloading of your car as you stand tired and cross, wondering where you can find the nearest garage. Your wife is in a rage because she has an aversion to appearing in public with her face smudged, her hair disarranged and her dress crumpled. All these things and more you see with your eyes closed in two seconds flat. Then you open them. And around the next bend, set back amid a grove of cool trees you see the little semi-circle of cabins which the sign warned you of. You pull in by a farmhouse—or a filling station, or a garage—which registers instantly as the mother hen to this brood.[7]

Roadside life “sprang up prodigally as morning mushrooms, and completed a circle that will whirl for pleasure and for profit as long as the American blood and the American car are so happily married.”[8] This was the first comprehensive diagnosis of this new world. Although the writer’s influence was not direct (the essay was published without his name on it) Agee had defined an inventory of sights and attitudes that would soon become common currency in American travel writing, art, and cinema.

While Agee’s assessment was on the newsstands, moviegoers were flocking to Frank Capra’s hit It Happened One Night (1934), a comedy set largely on the road in the new auto camps (see fig. x). This early “road movie” caught perfectly the spirit of highway adventure. It is the story of a runaway society heiress who meets a wily newspaper journalist hoping to cash in with a scoop on her whereabouts. From camp to camp they cross the country and fall in love. In the finale she leaves her millionaire fiancé at the altar, dashes to the journalist’s waiting car, and they drive away. We do not see them working out their new life together, just making a return to the open road of hope and escape—where opposites are magically reconciled. A Hollywood ending for an era of motoring. Free of the norms of city and home, the open road is where day-to-day obligations and perhaps even the restrictions of social class might fall away. Character is tested, values are reviewed, and for a while at least alternative ideals are permitted to surface.

American Photographs

In 1935 Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, the Soviet Union’s most celebrated satirists, arrived in New York for a ten-week tour. In their Ford, they crossed the country and back again, Ilf photographing with his Leica, Petrov penning wry observations. The Soviet Union was beginning to industrialize on a grand scale, and although America was still reeling from the economic crash of 1929 there was much to learn. The duo happily mocked America’s vulgar excesses but they were in awe of how sophisticated technology had found its way into every corner of daily life. Back home their reports appeared in the popular magazine Ogonek, in illustrated installments (see figs. xx) portraying themes such as Small Towns, the Desert, Indians, Negroes, New York, California, Mark Twain, Advertising, and Hollywood (where they even stopped to write a film script).[9] Their first subject, however, was roads, the like of which they had never encountered. “Before we say that the American West is a mountainous country, or a desert country, or a forested country, we want to say the most central, important thing about it: it is an automotive and electrical country.” The car symbolized the best and worst. It was the supreme embodiment of American modernity but it was clearly creating problems of its own, particularly road crashes and the alarming alienation of people from one another. According to Petrov:

There’s something insulting about being passed. But in America the passion to pass each other is unusually developed and leads to an even larger number of catastrophes, crashes, and other such roadside adventures which are called “accidents” in America. 
Americans drive fast. With every year they drive faster: every year roads get better and automobile motors get more powerful. People drive fast, confidently, and on the whole carelessly. In any case, in America the dogs understand what a roadway is better than the drivers themselves do. American dogs are smart, and never run out onto the highway and don’t race after cars with optimistic barking. They know what that leads to.

The name that Ilf and Petrov gave their report was “Amerikanskie fotografii” (American photographs). A year later this also became the title of what has proved to be the one of the most influential photographic books. In 1938 Walker Evans was the first photographer to receive a solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The accompanying publication has been reprinted many times and remains a touchstone, not only for photographers but also for anyone interested in the 1930s (see fig. x). While Evans’s American Photographs was not the result of a road trip as such, it drew on a decade of comprehensive travel through the center, south, and east (New York, New Orleans, Alabama, Atlanta, Florida). There is no geographic or narrative order to the book, but Evans developed a highly suggestive sequence that moves thematically, each image adding nuance to build a complex commentary on both America and the place of images within it. Nearly half the images contain other images and a quarter depict automobiles and roadside life. Evans was less interested in the great cities, preferring the small towns chanced upon by car. Here one could see new technology rubbing along with vernacular culture and a practical acceptance of the past. This mixture, thought Evans, provided the truest measure of the state of the nation.

The emblematic images in American Photographs are essentially found montages that highlight the new tensions of modern life, many of which seemed to stem from the automobile. Love Before Breakfast, Atlanta (1936; fig. x) shows a brutal barrier built to shield houses from the noise and pollution of an expanded road. The porches of the well-appointed homes now look onto nothing, while the view from the upper balconies is a charmless strip. The movie billboards that festoon the barrier are not for the occupants but for motorists passing through. Evans set his formal and steady gaze against the speed of change. Measured, reflective, and unforced, he did not chase after progress; rather, he studied its cumulative consequences. Similarly, when his image Main Street of Pennsylvania Town (1935; fig. x) caught the eye of the British Architectural Review, the editors noted:

What is important about it (apart from the genius of the photographer, Walker Evans) is the conglomeration of objects—buildings, telegraph poles, street lamps, letter boxes, advertisements, signs, monuments—scattered, to an even more marked extent that they are everywhere else in the world, without any eye for ensemble.[10]

Pragmatism defined America more than any grand plan. Evans’s framing of such haphazard scenes was light and unobtrusive, drawing attention to the ad-hoc composition of the world rather than his own compositional prowess. With little overt personal style or sentiment, Evans had developed a generous and perceptive vision drawing from his predecessors Mathew Brady and Eugène Atget. American Photographs swung wide the doors for generations of photographers. One can work in this idiom anywhere in America without risk of imitation or influence.  It is impossible to imagine post-war photography without his precedent, and countless photographers have been outspoken about their debt to Evans.

American Photographs includes several images of tenant farmers in the South who had been hit by the dire economy and severe drought of the mid-1930s. Many farmers were forced to leave their land to look for a better life, making fraught journeys westward to California. The mass migration, much of which took place by car, was documented more thoroughly by Dorothea Lange and published in 1939 as An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion. The photographs of decrepit automobiles creaking under the weight of families and possessions are some of the most vital and poignant of the era.

Lange was documenting the grim necessity of an uncertain road trip, far removed from the sphere of leisure and consumerism. Meanwhile on the East Coast, in what seemed like a world away, millions of visitors were waiting in line to catch a glimpse of an automated future. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, General Motors was sponsoring a vision of car culture in the year 1960. Futurama: Highways and Horizons was a vast animated model covering nearly an acre (see fig. x). Viewed from above, it had more than half a million individually made buildings, hundreds of roads, and 50,000 cars (10,000 of which moved at robotic speed up and down the highways). In this grand utopia the bounties of the American wilderness provided the backdrop for a nationwide traffic infrastructure. Science, industry, and nature would be integrated harmoniously while seven-lane expressways took city workers—driving up to 100 miles per hour—out to new suburbs and towns dotted with amusement parks and golf courses. The old architecture would be swept aside by the shiny veneer of a techno-wonderland. Reduced working hours in this brave new world would mean more time for long car trips.

As visitors left Futurama they found themselves in a full-size version of one of its intersections (see fig. x). Raised pedestrian walkways allowed the unimpeded flow of cars and buses at street level. The agenda of General Motors was blatant: more state-funded roads would lead to the purchase of more cars. But it was the sheer spectacle and order of the presentation that seduced audiences. America’s conversion to the automobile had been so fast and chaotic that any picture of a comprehensive future would have been attractive. Masterminded by the architect Norman Bel Geddes, it was a bold statement but a last gasp for the kind of totalized planning that had so caught the imagination of designers and urbanists between the wars. The city as organism, with the car as blood cell, was a powerful idea but fatally flawed in its misreading of human needs and ecological effects. Nevertheless, President Roosevelt was impressed by Futurama and its core principle of a network of national highways would eventually become reality.

The Paycheck and the Personal

Corporate sponsorship need not be so heavy handed. In 1943 Standard Oil initiated a major photographic survey of all aspects of the oil industry worldwide, from wells and refineries to factories, homes, and automobiles. The project was run by Roy Stryker, who, in the 1930s, directed photographers at the government’s Farm Security Administration.[11] Stryker had learned that the most valuable and lasting documents were made with only loose directives. Trusted photographers could be left to explore subjects as they found them. “You are not just photographing for Standard Oil,” he urged his team, “you are photographing America. You are recording history.”[12] Over the next eight years Stryker’s thirteen core photographers assembled a substantial portrait of the country’s relationship with oil. The surviving archive contains over one hundred thousand images, with an emphasis on roads and commercial transportation. A humanist and optimist, Stryker had managed to soften Standard Oil’s demands for flattering images. Little of the project feels like publicity and the best of it, such as Esther Bubley’s views of roadside life (figs. xx), is richly independent.

In many respects such independence was a sign of the growing confidence and desire among ambitious photographers to find their own balance between art and report, between the poetry of expression and the prose of the document. Indeed much of the most noteworthy American photography of the mid-twentieth century emerged from this precarious balancing of the commissions that paid the bills and the creative impulse. The Standard Oil project showed what was possible if a reasonably sympathetic figure could mediate between a powerful corporation and the photographers it employed. Of course such circumstances were not common and in many respects the photographic road trip came to epitomize escape from the world and values of paid work. Going on the road was what photographers would do in opposition to commercial demands. But funding needed to come from somewhere.

In 1941 The Limited Editions Club of New York asked Edward Weston if he would consider making photographic illustrations for a new edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855. This epic poem was already a classic of American literature, filtering into popular culture to gift us, among other things, the phrase “the open road.”[13]Whitman’s words, sprawling without narrative, full of possibility and vivid imagery, continue to resonate with that sense of America as a land of roaming freedom and self-determination. As an artist of equally strong will and forceful vision, Weston was a canny choice. Like Whitman he was a romantic whose work sprang from the dramatic encounter between inner subjectivity and an outer reality. With Whitman’s mix of boldness and humility, Weston declared: “I am the adventurer on a voyage of discovery, ready to receive fresh impressions, eager for new horizons . . . not to impose myself or my ideas, but to identify myself in, and unify with, whatever I am able to recognize as significantly part of me: the ‘me’ of universal rhythms.” He insisted there would be no “illustration . . . no effort to recapture Whitman’s day. The reproductions . . . will have no titles, no captions. This leaves me great freedom—I can use anything from an airplane to an longshoreman.”[14] Word and image would stand apart, leaving the viewer-reader to negotiate between the two men, their mediums and their very different historical moments. With his young wife Charis Wilson he spent ten months travelling 25,000 miles from their home in Carmel, California to New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, on to New Jersey and New York, then back via Illinois and the Dakotas. He photographed big cities as well as smaller towns, landscapes shaped by civilization and inhabitants standing before their homes or places of work. The commission drew Weston out of his isolation to make images of a shared world, a traveller photographing for fellow travellers. With few close-ups, he viewed his subject matter in great detail but at a discrete distance, as if pausing while passing through (fig. x).

In 1946 Henri Cartier-Bresson came to New York from Paris to prepare for a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art. He was soon in New Orleans on assignment for Harper’s Bazaar, where he met the poet and critic John Malcolm Brinnin. Cartier-Bresson longed to make a substantial survey of the country. In April 1947 he and Brinnin secured an advance from Harper’s for profiles of assorted artists and writers scattered across the land. Brinnin recalled their departure: “I made a last survey, picked Walker Evans’s book American Photographs from a shelf and placed it face up on the backseat.”[15] Brinnin planned the route and drove the car. Cartier-Bresson watched the passing scenery and called for occasional stops. The seventy-seven days of travel invigorated the photographer. He soon had enough exemplary images for a whole publication. Harper’s art director Alexey Brodovitch laid out a book dummy and Pantheon agreed to publish. But with busy schedules the project dragged and Cartier-Bresson lost patience. Brinnin grew anxious that he might be sidelined from the project, Brodovitch eventually mislaid the dummy, and the project never came to fruition. The first real sign of the quality of Cartier-Bresson’s work came with his book The Decisive Moment (1952).[16] It contains a sequence of twenty American images (figs. xx), opening with anonymous citizens in Los Angeles and New York, and concluding with three portraits (William Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi; Truman Capote in New Orleans; and Saul Steinberg in Vermont). In between are shots from Cape Cod, Chicago, Boston, Iowa, and New Jersey. Exquisitely observed, they are lyrical but haunted pictures of a country uneasy with itself, a view quite at odds with the postwar promise portrayed in the mass media. Although car culture barely appears, there is a shot of the epic sweep of Manhattan’s Westside Highway. Cartier-Bresson’s attention to small human incident falls away as he gasps from above at this vast terrain of the automobile.[17] The world promised in Futurama was coming into being, at least in parts of the country.

As longer trips became easier, the popular image of major highways came to be defined less by commercial necessity and more by recreation. Getting your “kicks on Route 66” is the obvious example (the famous song was released by Nat King Cole in 1947), but the Pacific Coast Highway in California and US Route 1 on the East Coast were also marketed as expansive leisure drives. In the summer months of 1954, Berenice Abbott photographed the full length of Route 1, from Maine to Florida. The aim was to shoot intensively and capture a moment in rapid transition, an approach she had first developed in her 1939 book Changing New York. Many of her 2400 exposures of US 1 were color and show roadside culture of 1954 in all its particular charm and excess. Along with Walker Evans and Eugène Atget before her, Abbott understood that what is most familiar to modern life is often what is most fleeting, and its significance may only become apparent once it has disappeared. In this regard one of the highest callings for a photographer, and one of the toughest challenges, is to document the present for sake of the future. It requires acute attention to the things around you that others are taking for granted. Unsurprisingly, such photographs may often appear inconsequential: Abbott’s project was overlooked in its time and languished for decades. Today it provides us with rich insight into the character of what turned out to be a very short-lived moment. One can sense the force of mass marketing beginning to assert itself, but there is still a feeling of locality and difference in Abbott’s photographs.[18

One Long Flow

By 1950 over one hundred million cars had been manufactured in America, mainly in Detroit, with over three million sold annually. The expansion was relentless. On June 25, 1956, a re-elected Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation commencing the largest peacetime public works project the world had seen. Tax on gas would raise $33 billion annually to build 41,000 miles of new roads. Oil prices were low and the auto lobbies powerful. Cold War anxiety also played its part, with advocates promising smooth passage for the military and ample provision for the evacuation of cities in the event of a nuclear strike. The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways would speed up transport and improve safety. It would also homogenize the driving experience with uniform road surfaces, standard intersections, and a nationwide system of signage. In theory, all of this would democratize the automobile once and for all. As neither luxury nor necessity, the automobile would simply be a matter of fact, as integral to the life Americans as walking. Or perhaps more so.

The desire to tie the country in one smooth ribbon of asphalt and concrete was paralleled by many other forms of standardization. American life was being transformed by corporate culture, modular architecture, the spread of chain stores, and the marketing of populist taste through nationwide television and advertising. Commercialized imagery in the home, on the street, and at the roadside was constant and unavoidable. Visual culture was beginning to be defined less by its peaks of quality or idiosyncrasy than by its low background drone. In different ways much of the advanced American art and photography of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s responds to this flattening of experience, this waning of affect. Boredom and repetition became the new muses: Pop art displayed serial media imagery with deadpan wit (think of Andy Warhol’s repeated images derived from press photos of car crashes); Conceptual art reduced visual pleasure to chilly analysis and flat facts. In many respects artists such as Walker Evans, Stuart Davis, and Edward Hopper had already intuited this sensibility in the 1920s and 1930s. A generation later, all three were heralded as pioneers of a new American vernacular.

In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg had his friend the musician John Cage drive a Ford Model A over twenty sheets of typewriter paper, glued together as a long strip. The artist poured black house paint onto an advancing front wheel to give a continuous impression. The result was titled simply Automobile Tire Print (1953; fig. x) and presented as a scroll, rolled at either end to make its length uncertain. It may be the shortest and slowest road trip ever recorded, but it broke new ground, turning the expressive gesture beloved of abstract painting into an automated mark aligned with photography as a medium of mundane traces and evidence.

In 1947 the writer Jack Kerouac was thinking about a novel that would express the free-flowing life made possible by the automobile. Throughout the following years he made extended trips with friends, including Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg (see fig. x). He kept notes about everything: people, politics, places, work, food, cars, lovers. Lonely landscapes of empty beauty seen from a moving car formed the backdrop. “We were pointed towards that enormity which is the American continent,” Kerouac wrote.[19] He tested various approaches to writing and in 1951 he concluded that the best way to capture the spirit was to get it down fast, in one long flow. Over three weeks, he typed a continuous single-spaced paragraph on sheets of tracing paper joined into a 120-foot roll (fig. x). Ginsberg called it “spontaneous bop prosody.” Although it had a traditional narrative, no publisher would accept it. Kerouac eventually reworked his manuscript and formalized the typesetting, but it was the text produced in an unbroken burst of creative energy that brought On the Road into being.

Road and Trees (1962; fig. x) is Edward Hopper’s fifth from final canvas. The quietly disarming landscape distills an eventless evening drive in the country. Hopper and his wife had taken many car trips throughout their life and the iconography of the road—gas stations, pump attendants, roadside diners, deserted highways—had been central to his work for decades. Here, however, Hopper was stripping out everything unnecessary. In an early study for the painting he included a solitary car, but even that slips from the final picture. Movement is suggested simply through the slight “blur” in the trees and the linear flow of the composition: a view is taken in on the move between one place and another.

The following year the California conceptual artist John Baldessari produced a grid of snapshot photogtraphs titled The Backs of All the Trucks Passed While Driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, California, Sunday, 20 January 1963 (fig. x). A few months later Edward Ruscha published the first of his influential artist’s books, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, photographed on one of his regular trips from Los Angeles back to his parents’ home in Oklahoma City. Ruscha’s image with matter-of-fact titles such as SHELL, Daggett, California. TEXACO, Jackrabbit, Arizona, STANDARD, Amarillo and  Texas, look like real estate snaps and his book has the perfunctory design of a cheap guide. Three years later, he issued Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966; fig. x), a foldout panorama twenty-six feet in length. It was as bold in form as it was bland in content: a funereal tracking shot through the seductive monotony of Los Angeles.

In different ways then,  Rauschenberg, Kerouac, Hopper, Baldessari and Ruscha were all attempting to express continuous experience. They had broken with that older ideal of the exemplary and singular depiction of the exemplary and singular scene.[20] In order to get at the new character of America, it was the non-moments in between that needed to be described. The “all” and the “every.” The scroll and the panorama. Systematic documentation and the itemized itinerary. Such forms flirt with the promise of not having to make choices. The world is taken in without edits or selection, or at least without the hierarchy of narrative. No beginnings, no conclusions, no symbolism. Just the facts presented so barely that they might unnerve a viewer expecting something else from art. Moreover, these were responses to the growing feeling that what was coming to define the look and feel of America was its ongoingness. What you see goes on forever down the road, and forever into the future: an inevitable, unrelenting, permanent now. Yes, this might be alienated art about alienation, redeemable only through irony or a shrug, or a primal scream, yet many artists, writers, filmmakers and photographers felt that way. Even if it was clear that the wheels would eventually come off this juggernaut of “progress,” it was by no means obvious how or when, or what the alternative might be.

New Americans

In this regard the watershed American photographic project of the second half of the twentieth century is Robert Frank’s book The Americans, published in 1959. Frank had worked commercially for American magazines, notably Harper’s Bazaar, but sensed what he wanted to do was beyond commercial commission. “I didn’t want to produce what everybody else was producing. I wanted to follow my own intuition and do it my way, and not make any concession—not to make a Life story. . . . Those goddamned stories with a beginning and an end.”[21] So with proposal to make a “broad, voluminous picture record of things American,” a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, and a 1950 Ford, Frank went on the road between 1955 and 1957.

Frank insisted his project needed to be “essentially elastic” and would “shape itself as it proceeds.”[22] The result was a vast survey of all that seemed uncomfortable in the American psyche, captured by a photographer with a rare ability to turn the most unpromising moments into new symbols. In his introduction to The Americans, Jack Kerouac compared Frank’s sensibility to a jazz musician.[23] Indeed four groundbreaking jazz albums appeared in 1959: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um, and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. Bebop had exploded, with space opening out to take players and listeners down side roads and byways. But underneath was a pulse, or at least the intimation of one. Brubeck felt this music expressed a distinctively new “American Scene.” At a formal level, Frank’s photography was a visual equivalent. Confident yet unpredictable, he could weave around his chosen motifs: ragged American flags, lone jukeboxes, glowing television screens, and detached citizens dwarfed by their automobiles. He attuned himself to the way the background and foreground of daily experience could switch without warning. Out of the humdrum the unexpected lunges forward. Behind a glowing starlet at a Hollywood premier the common faces of the watching crowd are compelling. Under this tarpaulin is a car but under that one, perhaps a body (see figs. xx). From Frank’s underlying structure sprang great fountains of invention, existing from moment to moment through wits alone. And between the instants he was able to evoke the miles and miles, the hours and hours of tedium. Many photographers have spoken of what driving for long periods can do to the visual imagination. There are times when it becomes trancelike. There are also times when the experience of the landscape rolling by can empty the mind and make the photographer intensely alert, so that when they step from the car they are hypersensitive to the world around them. The switch in tempo, from driving with hands on the wheel to walking with hands on the camera camera, can be profound. Indeed Frank, like many subsequent photographers based in New York (including Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld) hadn’t even owned a car until deciding upon a road trip. The thrill of mobility was new and led to a heightened awareness of the motion of driving and the stillness of photographing.

Frank’s attention recast photography as a needle flickering on the dial of the everyday, registering the tiniest tremors. It was startlingly supple. Years later he recalled, “I was in good shape back then.” Such photography is exhausting and it takes a toll on the body and nervous system, but Frank held it together long enough to produce an anti-epic of troubling, bitter, angry and yet melancholy beauty. The debt to his mentor Walker Evans is clear enough, but Frank rejected the cool and dispassionate gaze for a vision so willfully subjective that each image is as much a record of his own state of mind as a report on the world. He was also more explicit in his commentary on everything from tense race relations and the crudeness of mass culture to the numbing effects of political disenfranchisement. While Frank was far from alone in his alienation, the extraordinary quality of his observation has come to stand in for the disillusionment of the era. And while the impact of Evans’s vision has been slow and consistent, the influence of Frank’s work was much more sudden, traumatic even. Within a few years many were trying to work in his vein but it was really too complete and closed, too tied to Frank’s own specific subjectivity. The Americans was definitive and inimitable, but in its perfection it signaled that if more were to be said on the road about America, other directions would have to be taken.

A Wrong Turn

In an essentially conservative decade, the primary revolution of 1950s America was aesthetic. The boom in manufacturing technology elevated design as never before, pitching the automobile fully into the realm of consumer goods. Cars were not just workhorses, or a means of getting away from it all, but symbols of taste and aspiration. The latest models shared curves and colors with the latest kitchen gadgets, furniture, shop displays, buildings, graphics, and even clothes. In 1956 the cultural critic Roland Barthes declared:

I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic Cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.[24

Of course Gothic cathedrals were built to last. Once the automobile becomes part of consumer culture, obsolescence is built in. This is illustrated perfectly by a snapshot taken by Walker Evans in 1955 (fig. x). He was on the road in Putnam, Connecticut, shooting a photo-essay on old mill architecture for Fortune magazine. Robert Frank was with him as a friend and paid assistant.[25] As they waited for the light to contour the facade of the mill in the background, Frank sat at the wheel of Evans’s shapely Buick Roadmaster convertible. We would not be surprised to hear that the mill stands to this day, but it would be something of a miracle if that Buick is still going. So the frame captures two epochs of design, two cultures, and two temperaments of photography. While Evans was interested in the ways in which history persists into the present, Frank shot images that contain few traces of the past

Although Frank had left his native Switzerland in 1947, he retained the dislocation that many Europeans experience in America’s great expanse. For strangers such wide-open space is thrilling and terrifying, an echo chamber for whatever the isolated soul is feeling. The frisson of existential angst and fleeting euphoria is part of the appeal of many a road trip. As The Americans was published, the film North By Northwest was released. Alfred Hitchcock’s caper about a suave Madison Avenue advertising executive getting mistaken for an FBI agent seems the polar opposite of Frank’s worldview. But at root they are about the same things seen from either end of the social spectrum: American anxiety, secrecy and power, manipulative images, deceptive appearances, and troubled masculinity. When Cary Grant is dumped by a Greyhound bus on a dusty highway in the middle of nowhere his curiosity quickly turns to fear as he is set upon by a murderous airplane. For the British director those open roads and distant horizons were as much a source of foreboding as excitement. Indeed, Hitchcock began his next film, Psycho (1960; fig x.), by stacking up all the over-familiar ingredients of the road movie: a pile of cash, wild love, an impulsive plan, and a car to flee the city. Bank clerk Marion Crane (Vivian Leigh) steals a client’s money and takes off. When she leaves the Interstate Highway to look for a motel her fate is sealed. She ends up dead, stabbed by the creepy owner and put in the trunk of her own car. The new freeways had cut off America’s rural communities, establishing a vast hinterland of resentment, regret, and repression. Or so Hitchcock was suggesting. Psycho did for the country’s byways and sleepy motels what Steven Spielberg’s Jaws would do for sharks. American culture still finds it difficult to shake the idea that its big cities embody the present and its small towns the past. Consequently, one of the major attractions of the road trip has become the fantasy of time travel. The open road leads back to what was, to someplace where time passes more slowly.

As we have seen, the postwar expansion of America’s car culture was rapid and consuming. Many Americans certainly gained a keener sense of the scope of the nation and the promise of democratic travel had in many ways been fulfilled. At the same time however, there was a growing sense that the expansion had been hasty and shortsighted. Beyond the marginalization of small towns, it was clear that more roads were leading to more cars. Congestion was getting worse and the environmental impacts were becoming impossible to ignore. Meanwhile, the safety of even the latest cars and roads was in question. In 1965 Ralph Nader’s exposé Unsafe at Any Speed: the Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile became a bestseller. In May 1969 Life magazine published “The Highway as a Killer,” a damning report with lurid photographs by Arnold Crane (see fig. x). The opening statement was unequivocal: “More Americans will die in traffic accidents this year than have died in the entire Vietnam war. . . . State highway departments have been more interested in multiplying the miles of new expressways than in making them safe.” It was a shocking statement, bringing together problems abroad and problems at home. Meanwhile fumes and tailbacks choked many cities, and the sightlines on the monotonous new roads were causing “highway hypnosis.”[26]

Compounding all this, the coming decade brought crises in global oil markets that caused sudden shortages at the gas stations (see fig. x). For the first time, the wider world confronted the fact that oil was a finite resource and pivotal to contemporary geopolitics. The ideal of the tank always full and the freeway always empty was beginning to slip away. While it would be misplaced to say that the American road had reached a dead end, it certainly began to symbolize a different set of values.

We can see this shift in attitudes both in road trip photography and the road movie, that flexible cinematic genre that has expressed many of the nation’s aspirations and anxieties for the better part of a century. It is always difficult to end a road movie, because its essential attraction is escape and the engine of its narrative is momentum. What should happen at the end of a road trip? A return to the status quo? A revolutionary new beginning? A few minor adjustments to one’s outlook? Obviously it is not enough to drive west and arrive in the Promised Land. Hollywood responded to the petro-political upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s with a string of road movies that ended badly in every sense. In Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), the glamorous bank robbers run out of options and meet their end in a hailstorm of slow-motion bullets beside their car. The counter-cultural heroes of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) are gunned down on a whim by stereotypical rednecks. The camera rises to view their bodies from on high as if the only way to leave the fatal road is through an out-of-body experience. The existential driver in Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point slams into a roadblock and is consumed by fire. Steven Spielberg’s chase movie Duel climaxes with the key vehicles toppling into a ravine. Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, a story of men drag racing across America, ends with an illusion of celluloid burnout as if the projector has stalled on an arbitrary final frame that melts on screen. The latter three films were all released in 1971 and countless nihilistic imitations followed. Clearly the road was still a powerful if contested metaphor: for the perceived halt in the nation’s progress, for the wrong turn that followed the radical hopes of the early 1960s, or more generally for the crushing of civil freedoms by consumerism and the state war machine.

These films were trying to express paralysis, a suspension perhaps better served by the still image than narrative cinema. Photographs show but are rarely expected to explain or resolve. Instead they propose to the viewer a state of affairs—social, psychological, pictorial—to be contemplated. Since coherent narrative is largely beyond the scope of the still image, road trip photography is not required to face the problem of endings. Few photographers make narratives in the strict sense, preferring associative or poetic sequences, albums, typologies, or just collections of epiphanies. The Bikeriders (1968; see fig. x), Danny Lyon’s insider account of the Chicago Outlaws biking club, shows the dynamics of a subculture that had rejected the automobile as a symbol of conformity. The project was one of the inspirations for Easy Rider but with a set of photographs Lyon was able to simply show what was, without forcing a narrative arc. His book is a report on a scene and now stands as a complex document.

Between 1968 and 1974, Joel Meyerowitz made an extensive and circumspect body of work on the road titled Still Going: America During Vietnam. Returning from Europe, Meyerowitz found himself in a country that was anxious but increasingly complicit with dumb culture and war overseas. Americans were rightly suspicious of their own government yet still determined to swagger and celebrate when they could. And across the landscape were traces—remnants and rejects—of military activity. Training facilities, test sites, rockets redeployed as absurd monuments. Meyerowitz’s images are ragged and uncertain, as if he was searching for a form to express the disquiet (see fig. x). There is no narrative to the project, just a series of glimpses of unsettled times.

Hereafter the long-repeated promises of liberty and freedom begin to haunt the American imagination and the road trip like broken promises. Moreover, the haunting happens increasingly at the level of images. Recycled ad nauseam in mainstream culture, the open road was hardening into ridged mythology, a set of fixed fantasies stuck in the past, endlessly looping around the hallowed and thoroughly exploited Route 66. As early as 1961 Daniel Boorstin lamented how much of everyday life, and travel in particular, had become a “pseudo event,” a “tautology” of predictable adventure and prepackaged risk in which “the more we work to enlarge our experience, the more pervasive the tautology becomes.”[27]

America as Art

For serious photographers the carapace of familiarity was becoming difficult to break. And yet the open road remained seductive. What is striking about projects made on the road since the 1970s is the way they challenge the twin profusion of cars and clichés. Lee Friedlander’s epic album The American Monument (1976) begins like a nineteenth-century inventory of public statuary but soon turns into a comic parable (see fig. x). Historical markers of civic achievement in metal and stone are swamped by street signs and parking lots. Architecture becomes inseparable from advertising and the concept of space itself becomes increasingly commercialized. All land is to be understood as real estate and subjected to its ever-faster rhythms. The essential wildness of space, which is still so central to the American imagination, slides to the edges of perception without disappearing entirely. In Stephen Shore’s Merced River, Yosemite (1979; fig. x), from his extended series Uncommon Places, we see a version of nature that has been preserved at the cost of its innocence if not its majesty. This sublime heartland of the American landscape was once penetrable by only the likes of intrepid nineteenth-century survey photographers. It is now a weekend destination in easy reach of West Coast city dwellers and tourists. It is not a theme park, yet, but the portent is there. Unlike Carleton Watkins or Ansel Adams before him, Shore rendered the famous skyline almost like a painted Hollywood backdrop. His photograph suggests that even if you were there it would feel like an image. Similarly, in Mitch Epstein’s pictures of the country at leisure in the 1970s and 1980s, we sense both the photographer and his subjects feeling their way through America as image (see fig. x). Epstein published this body of work much later (in 2005), under the title Recreation, a word perfectly poised between meanings:  “play” and “remake.”

When Joel Sternfeld took to the road in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he brought with him an inherited iconography from the nation’s great commentators and picture-makers. As Joshua C. Taylor suggested, in a book close to Sternfeld’s heart, it is instructive to understand America as Art.[28] The making of art is part of the continuous remaking of the nation. Sternfeld titled his landmark book American Prospects (1987; see fig. x)—prospects as in “views”, prospects as in “likely future.” Like Shore a few years earlier, Sternfeld was looking to reinvigorate a formal approach with his 8×10 view camera, producing images that played historical continuity against the unexpected ruptures of contemporary life. Classical calm is unsettled by disarming sights: a landslide in suburbia; the Space Shuttle piggybacking a 747; a sanitized Wet’n Wild water park trumping the age-old pleasures of the great outdoors; sublime landscapes requiring signs to advertise their beauty.

Such historical consciousness was in part a sign of the times. Photography was coming of age as an artisitic medium, with a complex and venerable past to draw upon and contend with. We should not fall into the easy postmodern trap of presuming America has become pure copy, and that every attempt to depict it is merely a photograph of a photograph. In the 1980s philosopher and photographer Jean Baudrillard remarked of the country that “everything is destined to reappear as simulation,” that “things seem only to exist by virtue of this strange destiny,” and that Disneyland is there to convince us that the rest of America is not Disneyland.[29] The presumption of a nation flooded with hyper-real fakes and facsimiles, populated by citizens who cannot tell what is what, is misconceived. The condition is much more profound: perhaps more than any other nation, modern America was and is a restart, a remake, a second attempt, a project and, most importantly perhaps, a work in progress. The American experiment is ongoing. It is in a state of constant becoming and thus needs to be monitored.  As a result, the country has a more sovereign and integral relation to self-image. America is not so much out there to be pictured, or even out there as a picture; rather, the act of picturing is a primary act of diagnosis, definition and self-assertion. Each new image, each new photographic project, adds to the existing mix a new proposal of identity and value.

This is why America remains so interested in what “American” might mean. Every utterance of the word “American” evokes the idealism of the nation’s founding, however unattainable. We see this even in the titles of so many of its key photographic projects, most of which have been road trips in one form or another. There is an unbroken thread that runs from Walker Evans’s American Photographs (1938) to Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958/9), Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces (1972), Jacob Holdt’s American Pictures (1977), Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects (1987), Paul Graham’s American Night (2003), right up to Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture (2010). Each one American, certainly, but not definitively so (whatever the photographers’ intentions at the time). Did Evans imply that his photography was somehow American, or his subject matter, or both? Was his book a statement of fact or a provocation? Do subsequent “American” projects reject and replace older ones, or do they modify or allegorize them? They are all sincere acts of intervention, heartfelt attempts to check and keep open the idea of what the country is or could be. What may be more American than the capacity of its commentators to be bravely attentive to the nation’s shortcomings?

Messages from the Interior

Photographers continue to make vital statements about what America is, and they continue to do it on the move. But the distinctions between the open road “out there” and the open roads of the imagination, of memory, or even of the collective archive have become less easy to define. Or more precisely, it has become increasingly apparent that they were always inseparable. Older ideas of physical space being separate from the mental, psychical space of memory and projection strike many image-makers as misleading and unhelpful. For example, when the British artist Victor Burgin crossed the continent to make his prescient image-text series US77 (see fig. x), it was with the knowledge that every encounter with a landscape or cityscape is filtered through a tangle of preconceptions—aesthetic, intellectual, social, political. These come from the mass media, but also literature, art history and photography (Burgin was working through the influence of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander). He turns this filtering into the very subject of his work so that what is discovered on the road is not the United States “as such,” but America as a state of mind that is layered and contradictory.  Burgin’s use of text serves to interrupt and divert the hardened conventions of road trip imagery into a field that is more ‘theoretical’ but also more openly associable imagery we find elsewhere in the culture.

Photography, a medium once so vital to the rationalized scientific mapping of the continent seemed to be transforming into a means to map unconscious or preconscious ideas of space and nation. The frontier was becoming as much internal and external. This is not to say that travel becomes irrelevant. Far from it: the road trip remains vital precisely because American spatial discovery and mental discovery, selfhood and nationhood, are so intertwined.

The New York photographer Ryan McGinley took to the road several times with groups of young people in order to make improvised, collaborative images in the wilds of nature.  Living together in unfamiliar places the group develops an intimacy and relaxed sense of theater. This is the Facebook generation, comfortable with displays of private moments and yet ever more reliant upon images for a sense of self. Being and being for a camera are indivisible. Equally playful but more obviously conceptual is The Great Unreal, by Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs. Their project shows us just how well photography can cope with the switch between America ‘out there’ and the imagined America. Many of their images document real spaces but theatricalize them with absurd scenarios and comic interventions. A circular toy road goes nowhere out on the very real plains (fig. x). The yellow median line of a highway continues down the rock face over the edge of a landslide (fig. x). These are absurdist gags but they draw our attention to the habits of perception that frame the American landscape. Only by breaking those habits – with humor, or irony or surprising picture making  – will we get the new American landscape we need. Even the more classically minded contemporary photographers are unavoidably knowing on this matter, but in different ways. Vanessa Winship’s series She Dances on Jackson, (2013; fig. x), Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi (200?), and Justine Kurland’s annual road trips with her young son are lyric documentaries fully aware that to even set out on the road with a camera is to summon a well-established history of American photography. The challenge is to add to it and remain true to what is new in one’s own experience.

The Endless Road?

We began with visual maps, the Photo-Auto Guides of 1906–10, published at the onset of the nation’s love affair with the car. We end a century later with another kind of map of American mobility, one that has emerged from a love affair with, or dependency upon with the screen. Google Street View, the ever-growing survey of the world’s roads and their surroundings, is a further point on a trajectory that began at the first meeting of the camera and the automobile, and continues into an unknown future. We want to know what the untraveled road looks like, where the paths not taken may lead. Doug Rickard is one of a number of artists to make use of Street View. He also shows a keen interest in its kinship with the history of street photography and the road trip. Framing chance scenes from small towns to give them new significance, he shoots his computer screen with a 35mm film camera, the classical equipment of the photographer on the hunt. Here the digital and the analogue worlds combine. In his extended project A New American Picture (see figs. xx), we can sense echoes from every phase of the history of the road trip. All is here, from the early thrills of what a new technology can show of familiar and strange subjects, to the existential crises, the euphoric interludes, the unexpected moments of poetic grace and polemic, and the unknown. And while we may never again become lost in America in the geographic sense, photography of the open road remains as disorienting, unpredictable and compelling as it ever was.

[1]. For accounts of the automobile in America in the first half of the twentieth century, see Norman Bel Geddes, Magic Motorways (New York: Random House, 1940); Ulrich Keller, The Highway as Habitat: A Roy Stryker Documentation, 1943–1955 (Santa Barbara, CA: University Art Museum, 1986); Peter J. Ling, America and the Automobile: Technology, Reform and Social Change, 1893–1923 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1990).

[2]. Founder Gardner S. Chapin sold Photo-Auto to the map publisher Rand McNally in 1907.

[3]. Such titles include E. O. Hoppé, Die Vereinigten Staaten: Das romantische Amerika; Baukunst, Landschaft, und Volksleben (Berlin: Ernst Wasmuth, 1927), also published as Romantic America (New York: B. Westermann Company, 1927).

[4]. Marshall McLuhan in Willem L. Oltmans, ed., On Growth (New York: Capricorn Books, 1974), p. 51.

[5]. [James Agee], “The Great American Roadside,” Fortune, September 1934,  pp. 53 -63, 172, 174, 177. Agee was not credited for the essay.

[6]. One of the photographs illustrating Agee’s essay was Walker Evans’s shot of a humble tourist camp cabin. This was the beginning of a unique pairing of talents but it was no collaboration: Agee and Evans met the following year.

[7]. [Agee], “The Great American Roadside,” p.56.

[8]. Ibid., p.60.

[9]. Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, “Amerikanskie fotografii,” Ogonek 11–17 and 19–23 (1936). A book of the project was also published in the Soviet Union and America but with no photographs. See Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, Odnoetazhnaia Amerika [Single-Storied America] (Moscow: Khudzhestvennaia literatura, 1937); and Little Golden America: Two Famous Soviet Humorists Survey these United States (New York: Farrar and Rhinehart, 1937). In 2007 the photographs and an English translation of the original articles were brought together in Erika Wolf, ed., Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip: The 1935 Travelogue of Two Soviet Writers (New York: Cabinet Books/Princeton Architectural Press, 2007).

[10]. Introduction to “Man Made America,” special issue of Architectural Review 108, no. 648 (December 1950): pp. 338–39.

[11]. The key photographers working for Stryker’s Standard Oil Project were Charlotte Brooks, Esther Bubley, John Collier, Jr., Harold Corsini, Arnold Eagle, Russell Lee, Sol Libsohn, Gordon Parks, Edwin and Louise Rosskam, Charles Rotkin, John Vachon, and Todd Webb.

[12]. See Ulrich Keller’s excellent study of this project, The Highway as Habitat. Standard Oil had a dubious presence in Germany between the wars and was somewhat involved in the fuelling of the Nazi war machine. The photographic project was in part an attempt at rehabilitation.

[13] Walt Whitman titled a section of Leaves of Grass “The Song of the Open Road.”

[14] Edward Weston, letter to Beaumont Newhall and Nancy Newhall, April 28, 1941, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Collection, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.

[15] John Malcolm Brinnin, cited in Agnés Sire and Jean- François Chevrier, eds.,  Photographing America: Henri Cartier-Bresson / Walker Evans, 1929-1947 (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009), p. 15.

[16]. Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (New York: Simon and Schuster, in collaboration with Editions Verve, Paris, 1952). The book was laid out in Paris by Tériade, the founder of Editions Verve, which published the book in France. Sixty-four of Cartier-Bresson’s Manhattan photographs had appeared three years prior in Daniel Wronecki’s celebratory book New York (Paris: F. Nathan,1949); however, they give little sense of the photographer’s grasp of America.

[17]. Years later Cartier-Bresson confessed: “If it had not been for the challenge of the work of Walker Evans, I don’t think I would have remained a photographer.” A few of Cartier-Bresson’s images do recall American Photographs, but what he took from Evans was what so many photographers took: the courage to grasp America as an evermore unwieldy, contradictory whole. Evans published a review of Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Momentbut he made no reference to the American sequence. See Walker Evans, “Cartier-Bresson: A True Man of the Eye,” New York Times, October 19, 1952. Reprinted in David Campany, Walker Evans: The Magazine Work (Göttingen: Steidl, 2013), pp. 216-217.

[18] The meandering Route 1 has been largely replaced by Interstate 95.

[19] Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll (New York: Viking, 2007), p. 190

[20] The ancient Greeks distinguished between two ways of understanding time. Chronos is time as measured by hisotrical events; Kairos is the time between those evants, the time of what we now call the everyday.

[21] Robert Frank, “Interview at Wellesley College” (1977) in Eugenia Parry Janis and Wendy MacNeil eds., Photography Within the Humanities(New Hampshire: Addison House, 1977).

[22]. Robert Frank, application for a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, October 21, 1954. Frank received a second grant from the foundation in 1956.

[23]. Many others have continued the analogy with jazz. See for example Jonathan Green, American Photography: A Critical History 1945 to the Present (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984); and Gerry Badger, “The Indecisive Moment: The ‘Stream of Consciousness’ Photobook,” in The Photobook: A History, Volume I, ed. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger (London: Phaidon, 2004).

[24]. Roland Barthes, “The New Citroën” (1956), in Mythologies (1957; New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), pp. 88-90. Barthes was prompted to write by the arrival of the Citroën DS, its streamlined curves reminiscent of American designs of the era.

[25]. Walker Evans, “These Dark Satanic Mills,” Fortune, April 1955, pp. 139-146.

[26]. Several more books detailing chronic car dependence appeared soon after. See A. Q. Mowbray, Road to Ruin (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969); Helen Leavitt, Superhighway-Superhoax (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970); Kenneth R. Schneider, Autokind vs. Mankind: An Analysis of Tyranny, a Proposal for Rebellion, a Plan for Reconstruction (New York: Norton, 1971); and John Jerome, The Death of the Automobile: The Fatal Effect of the Golden Era, 1955–1970 (New York: Norton, 1972).

[27]. Daniel Boorstin, The Image; or What Happened to the American Dream (New York: Atheneum, 1962), p.27.

[28] Joshua C. Taylor, America As Art,  (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

[29]. Jean Baudrillard, America (London: Verso, 1988), p. 32. See also Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983).

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