A camera can be many things: an app, a tool, a plaything, a convenience, a recording device, even a means to an artistic end. Before it’s anything else, though, it’s a machine.
Obviously, it’s a photographer’s favorite machine. What has historically been the second favorite isn’t as obvious. That would be an automobile. Why photographers favor it has to do with two defining aspects of the medium.
The fundamental purpose of photography isn’t to amuse or arouse or edify or entertain or distract or even document, surpassingly good as it can be at all those tasks. No, the fundamental purpose of photography is to defeat time. Nothing does it better: An image you are looking at now shows you something that happened then. It’s a two-dimensional wonder.
Three dimensions is a different story. What the camera isn’t all that good at is defeating space. Yes, using the right lenses can help — and if the camera is on a spy satellite that can help a lot. But as regards the space-time continuum, photography situates itself pretty much entirely on the time side.
This is where transportation comes in. Getting a look is a lot easier when there are means for getting around to do the looking. This is why the photographic road trip has such a long and happy high-mileage tradition: Robert Frank (the undisputed GOAT of photographic road trippers), Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Danny Lyon, William Eggleston, Ed Ruscha, the list goes on. It goes on so much it includes photographers rarely thought of in automotive terms: Garry Winogrand, Berenice Abbott, Edward Weston, even Ansel Adams.
Adams’s magnificent images of Yosemite weren’t taken from his front porch. He lived in San Francisco, then moved down the coast, to Carmel. A photograph his friend Cedric Wright took of him in 1942 memorably records his reliance on automotive mobility. Adams stands with tripod-supported camera on a platform atop a station wagon. The wagon is a classic California woodie. Put it in Malibu instead of Yosemite, and you’d expect to find surfboards on the roof.
In different ways, four new books from four very different photographers touch on this complementary relationship between camera and car. Actually, “four wheels” would better describe that relationship, since it predates the internal combustion engine. Just as Frank is the patron saint of the road trip, it has a patron vehicle, too. That would be the mule-driven darkroom wagon Timothy O’Sullivan used in 1867, out West, with the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel expedition.
It was in Nevada that O’Sullivan photographed the wagon. No images from that state appear in Mark Chester’s “Roadshow Anthropology.” There are photographs from Delaware, New York, New Mexico, Texas, West Virginia, Tennessee, Vermont, and many from Connecticut and Massachusetts. There’s even a ringer, from Ireland, with “VERY SLOW” emblazoned on the pavement.
Distributed by the University of Massachusetts Press, “Roadshow” is the first title bearing that press’s new Mill River imprint. Chester’s book gets things off to a high-octane start.
Signage is one of the things he’s fond of. “I am basically a street photographer,” he writes, which is and isn’t different from a road photographer. Those street-photographic standbys surprise and incongruity are much on display here. “Anthropology” is as important as “Roadshow” in the title. It’s the man-made world and its handiwork that most strongly attract Chester. For him, on the road means being on the lookout even more than being on the go.
Berenice Abbott is best known for her portraits from Paris, in the ‘20s, her New York cityscapes, from the ‘30s, and her science studies, from the ‘50s and ‘60s. No road trips there. Nor was she a car person. In 1984, her friend and future biographer, the photographer Hank O’Neal, lent her his VW Dasher diesel to drive from New York to Maine. Several hours later, an irate Abbott was calling from a pay phone in Connecticut. She had refilled the tank and now the car was kaput. The problem turned out to be she’d filled it with … gasoline.
Yet in 1954 Abbott and two friends, trailer in tow, twice drove the length of US 1, from Key West, Fla., to Fort Kent, Maine. She exposed some 1,100 black-and-white negatives and several dozen color transparencies. Like Chester, Abbot took an anthropological approach. Fascinated by human handiwork, especially auto related, she photographed tourist cabins, hotels, motels, trailer camps, motor courts, gas stations, traffic signs, parking meters, and, inevitably (unavoidably?) the New Jersey Turnpike.
Chester cites Lee Friedlander’s “America by Car” as an inspiration for his book. Friedlander (who turns 90 in July) has taken more than his share of road trips. That 2010 book has the road-trip title to end all road-trip titles. In it, Friedlander shoots from inside the interior of whatever car he’s in. It’s vroom with a view, the vehicle as venue, a beguiling visual interplay between in here and out there.
Friedlander’s new book “Pickup” (Steidl) is “America by Car” inside out. He offers views of that most utilitarian of American vehicles, as well as their surroundings, and, best of all, the contents of their truck beds. Those contents include motorcycles, dogs, sports equipment, rope, cable, pipe, gardening tools, kids, women in bathing suits, a big cat (big cat as in lion or cougar), a giant inflated rat, a ladder, spare tires, birdhouses, discarded Dr Pepper cans, rakes and shovels. It’s as if a meteorite hit a Walmart, and here are the vehicles that carted away the debris.
Friedlander has another new book out, “Real Estate” (Eakins Press Foundation). Would that all near-nonagenarian’s were so active. Real estate, as a concept, and road trip, as an activity, aren’t unrelated. Or at least they’re not in the work of Ed Ruscha.
Ruscha, a mere stripling, turns 86 in December. He’s currently, and deservedly, the toast of New York, with his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. From his photographs and paintings of gas stations to the most famous of his artist’s books, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” (1966), he is the artist as car guy.
The book consists of photographs of just what the title says. Ruscha is nothing if not a straight shooter, in several senses. To take the photos he set up an automatic camera in the back of his Datsun pickup truck (where was Friedlander?). He used the same arrangement for subsequent photographic projects about Los Angeles streets and buildings. A diagram for a later version of the camera arrangement can be found at 12sunsets.getty.edu, the Getty Research Institute’s interactive website “12 Sunsets: Exploring Ed Ruscha’s Archive.” One of the icons for navigating the site is a red pickup truck. Friedlander should take a screen shot and include it in the next edition of “Pickup.”
As it happens, some of the most memorable photographs in Robert Frank’s “The Americans” (1958) are of Los Angeles. But that’s not quite fair: Every one of that book’s 83 images is memorable. There are photographs of New York and New Orleans and Detroit and San Francisco and Santa Fe and Butte, Mont., and Miami Beach and Hoboken, N.J., and Chicago and Reno, Nev., and, well, you get the idea.
An evocation of this country unlike any other, “The Americans” is an updated, visual counterpart to Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” If that sounds too grand, then consider Frank’s book in terms of a different profound ponderer of matters American. “I’ve always wished I could write songs the way he takes pictures,” Bruce Springsteen has said of Frank.
In 1955 and ‘56 Frank criss-crossed the country in a 1950 Ford. It was a journey both mundane (Frank went to AAA to plan his route) and exotic (suspicious of the Swiss-born Frank’s accent, the Arkansas State Police pulled him over and sent his fingerprints to the FBI). Sometimes Frank drove alone, sometimes with his wife and their two young children. He covered 10,000 miles, shot 767 rolls of film, exposed 27,000 frames, made 1,000 8-by-10-inch work prints. He distilled all that into those 83 pictures. Do you believe in miracles? Page through “The Americans,” and it’s hard not to believe in the artistic kind.
Brian Graham was Frank’s assistant and printer in the 1980s. “Goin’ Down the Road with Robert Frank” (Steidl) offers a relaxed and affectionate view of his friend and former boss. The earliest photo is from 1979, the latest from 2019, the year Frank died. We see him with his second wife, June Leaf, old friend Allen Ginsberg, new friends Jim Jarmusch and Tom Waits. Best of all, there’s the sight of Frank behind the wheel of a Ford Falcon: sleeves rolled up, sunglasses on, heading down New York Rte. 207.
Stephen Shore calls the travels that produced Frank’s book “the archetypal road trip in American photography.” Shore, who took multiple memorable photographic road trips in the 1970s and ‘80s, makes that observation in his book “Modern Instances: The Craft of Photography. A Memoir” (MACK). An expanded edition appeared last month.
Shore was a key figure in making color photography artistically respectable; and his use of color helped expand the emotional character of the photographic road trip and extend its visual vocabulary. Where Frank’s use of black-and-white in “The Americans” helps give its images their mythic cast, Shore’s use of color lends an almost-ravishing immediacy to his views of a Yellowstone parking lot, a Texas drive-in movie theater, an Oregon billboard, Yosemite tourists.
Edward Weston may be the most unexpected photographic road tripper: For one thing, he makes Abbott look like Danica Patrick. Weston never learned to drive. In 1941, when he and his wife, Charis, spent 10 months driving more than 24,000 miles to take photographs for a special edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” she did all the driving.
So it was owing to experience as well as artistic sensibility that so few of the 74 photographs he finally sent to his publisher (out of more than 700 exposures) have the feeling of a road trip. There is one, though, “Winter Evening, Connecticut,” that manages the neat trick of paying tribute to the mystique of the road but in such a snug, cozy fashion. Weston lived 3,000 miles away, in California. But the photograph feels like coming home. It’s a useful reminder, actually, about the nature of road trips, photographic and otherwise. They’re about returning as well as leaving.
Imagine if Odysseus had had an Olympus …
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.