Contextual Research Essay

After 100 years of history, what next for the love affair between photography and the American road trip? And where might that take me?

“Some people think that the camera steals their soul. Places, I am convinced, are affected in the opposite way. The more they are photographed (or drawn and painted) the more soul they seem to accumulate.” (Wells, p60)

America is a vast country, with what might be considered as a short (recorded) history. However, in the last 100 years or so, it has been rapidly accumulating “soul” as artists and non-artists alike “go west” on their American road trip armed with a camera. The original pioneers, whose journeys these road trips often serve to replicate, travelled westwards by wagon train, taking months of supplies with them to support them until they reached a likely location to raise a settlement before the winter took hold. Not a journey to be taken lightly, and even many years later, not one that would lead to a lifestyle that might allow for luxuries such as making art for the rest of the world; Albert Bierstadt’s Looking down the Yosemite Valley (1865) [a] was amongst the earliest images from California to be seen in New York, even though this was well after the advent of photography (Wells).
Later though, with the advent of the automobile, and the infrastructure that goes with it, and coinciding as it did with the simplification and commercialisation of the photographic processes, the great American road trip was born and subsequently labelled as the “first American popular culture that could truly call itself national” (Campany, p11). And with it, America’s soul (akin, it would seem, to Benjamin’s “aura”) has grown, at least within the confines of pop culture. The American road trip is now an iconic right of passage, a journey of discovery of things previously discovered. How will this be affected by a seemingly relentless tide of change to technology, to art and to culture itself, and to my own evolving practice?

First though, some thoughts of history. Back in the early 1900s, following in the footsteps of those early pioneers will have been a great adventure, the American version of the European “Grand Tour”. In 1903 there were but 141 miles of asphalt roads in the whole of America, and a coast-to-coast trip would take about 2 months. Just three years later, there were enough roads to warrant improved navigational aids and the Photo-Auto Guide was launched [b], a turn-by-turn photographic map to make routing simpler, and by the end of that decade, there were 130,000 cars in America. Another 20 years later, there were 26.7 million! (Campany)

Early road trip photography would consist of “picturesque albums of beautiful landscapes, interspersed with shots of awesome bridges” (Campany, p8), but notions have changed. Photography has cemented its position within the arts, and over a century of road trips have provided a growing knowledge of what America by car has looked like; the universal motifs of the gas station, the motel and the open road itself, and every subsequent image is now made through a tangle of preconceptions and memory. Photographs of gas stations taken today are taken with the knowledge of those seen before, through Stephen Shore, Ed Ruscha and others, or in the movies that work a similar trope, maybe adding sex and guns as further spice. Just as the reader caused the death of the author in the theorising of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, the author is also risking suicide through their own anachronistic reading of those before him!

Walker Evans’s photographs provide a direct lineage to post-war American photography; his images for American Photographs (1938) showed little in terms of a signature style or overbearing sentimentality in the vernacular scenes he shot. Robert Frank would continue this tradition in the seminal collection Les Americains (The Americans, 1958). He toured for 8 months in a Ford Business Coupe, shooting 800 rolls of film that were to become “essential for the understanding of both America and photography” (Campany, p42). Stephen Shore came from Warhol’s Factory to photograph his many road trips in an analytical yet un-critical, curious but distanced manner. A major early proponent of colour photography, he also foresaw something of the Facebook generation, photographing everyday life from a personal point of view, sharing the utterly mundane, from the Post Office to motels, crossroads to pancakes [c] to the people he saw on his travels, and many other things in-between. Joel Sternfeld captured surreal yet optimistic juxtapositions, Alec Soth was sleepy yet traditional. Amongst all that, Lee Friedlander took framing to a higher level.

Friedlander’s America by Car (2010) was photographed from the car’s interior, highlighting an important difference to photography of the road trip from that of the flâneur. Whilst Frank might have used a 35mm Leica in his work, Friedlander, Shore, et al, were known to use larger format cameras. The Leica can be thought of as an open view camera, you can use it with both eyes open, seeing both what is within and without the viewfinder. With the LF cameras, you are confined to only what is visible under the curtain; the world is framed. The same happens when shooting from within the car, the world is framed before you raise the camera to shoot: the windshield, the side windows and mirrors. Shore spoke of how “A photograph has edges, the world does not” (Shore, p13), his framing was often passive, a counter-response to his camera choice, Friedlander grasped at those edges, bringing them into the camera frame, dividing and sub-dividing [d]. Compositional nirvana.

Many of the current road trip photographers are following the same highways and byways, re-photographing rather than reinventing the genre. Kyler Zeleny, Jack Latham and Ron Jude provide pleasing photographs and their own chosen narrative, but seem at first glance to be bedded in our preconceptions based on what has gone before. The parallels can be drawn and we view them through our own experience of Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand and Shore. There is an interminable sameness of view, part of the attraction, but if in 1938, within the accompanying essay to Evans’s American Photographs, Lincoln Kirstein could elude to “the boredom of a sight-sated public” (Evans, p193), how bored must the Facebook generation be? Or does some photography now simply pass by as momentary glimpses in the media datastream?

A small number of photographers have been breaking the mould in different ways. Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood (2011) is a recreation of a journey, one taken 50-odd years earlier through Nebraska and Wyoming, one that was marked with murder; “A boy and a girl and a car and a gun. The formula is deeply encoded in American mythology.” (Patterson ). His forensic view of the crime scenes provides an oddly disassociated presence as the evidence has gone with buildings demolished in the intervening years, but there are also items copied from the archives to sit alongside his present day photographs. It becomes strangely compelling [e]. Ryan McGinley creates a fabricated reality in his journey, taking with him young models and artists to act under his direction in scenes of escapism within nature, a carefree world to share. The landscape is deconstructed and refabricated in the surreal images of Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, with varied stylistic tropes; only the idea of the road unifies the images. What are Onorato and Krebs getting at? I’m not actually sure it ‘means’ anything, other than it being a playful mash-up of motel rooms, fast food and the iconography of the open road, tilting towards more contemporary still-life and staged photography movements.

Doug Rickard’s imagery feels most like those more traditional artists mentioned earlier, and he acknowledges this. However, he hasn’t undertaken a road trip himself, instead investigating America’s troubled and economically devastated neighbourhoods via the means of Google Street View (GSV - a natural descendent from the Photo-Auto Guide?). Rickard acknowledges the power of technology, but he also acknowledges that he is tied to his own expectations: “I wanted each picture to give off a sense of place. I wanted Detroit to feel like Detroit. And part of that is based on my own idea of Detroit” (Polino). He has photographed black and Hispanic neighbourhoods in a way that appears to be missing from the traditional cannon, he has an access, albeit artificial, that might otherwise be unavailable to what appears to be a predominantly white (and male) history of recording of the journey. Here it feels like we might truly be at some form of cultural crossroads for the future of the road trip, where the traditional joins with the future to form the contemporary. From here it could go anywhere.

Technology is forever changing too; things come and go, such as the Kodak film hailed in the early 20th Century as making road trip photography simple [f] now all but consigned to the history books. These on-going changes will impact both the nature of the road trip and the art that comes as a result of it. The advances in automobile technology has already changed the landscape, and going forward there will likely be need for fewer gasoline stations and motels, especially if driverless cars come to the fore. These driverless cars might also lead to the demise of the explorative trip and the chance meandering down interesting side roads, with navigation handled by a computer based on a destination. Perhaps green credentials will push further, ushering in the advent of the cycle tour, as traced by Garry Loughlin (of the land and us). Granted, this isn’t for the faint-hearted!

And what for the art itself? Whilst it might be inconceivable to think of the end of the photographic print due to the current commodification of such, there are a growing number of alternative modes of presentation, many via video or digital means on the Internet. Instagram has become a powerful dissemination tool; even Shore has an account , with the contents also being transferred to book form . Richard Prince has mined Instagram for his appropriation art and it’s a tool already acknowledged within the artist and curatorial community. Other social media outlets might have their place for exhibition of art. The ability to perform direct and scheduled regular uploads (as with @555uhz tweeted film stills ), road trip art could be viewed almost in real time. Blogging (or indeed, vlogging) might also become an intrinsic part of the post-Internet photographers toolbox, the English photographer Simon Roberts has already made extensive use of blogging to direct his (English) road trip, and Soth is known to make use of Internet search engines for research. Personally, I have used GSV to identify potential photograph sites, as with my earlier Road to Joy project [g] and [h]. The future appears to lie in the Internet for more than this though; the road trip could conceivably become performative in some way through the use of social media.

I cannot actually say with any accuracy what the future holds for the American road trip or for its photography. However, in looking at the subject with a purpose of positioning my own practice in relation to it, it is clearer to me how my own work has been influenced by it, been informed by preconceptions formed from looking at it, and also the television programmes I grew up with and the cult of Americana they fed. It is also clear that I need to make my own journey and record it. When this happens, the photographs I would legitimately expect to make based upon my photographic leanings might be described as being broadly influenced by Shore and other similar colour practitioners.

Recent experiments through the course of the MA might indicate something else though. Yes, in many ways the photography of Le loup, le renard et la belette [i] can be thought of being in my existing style, but the presentation of it has not been. However I can now also draw on and build upon the GSV appropriation work (Ruscha’s Gasoline Stations and After Stephen Shore) and also the literal and linear journey presentation of Drive [j] to add to this, to take in a different direction, where the act of driving becomes part of the art process, not just the means of getting to the subject as it has been in the past. The car, the road trip and art will continue to be linked, for the near future at least; the growing pop culture soul of America will surely guarantee this. 


[a] Bierstadt, A: Looking down the Yosemite Valley, California (1865), oil on canvas, 162.6x 244.5cm [online]. Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham. Available at:,_California#/media/File:Looking_Down_Yosemite-Valley.jpg [accessed 27/04/2016]

[b] Sargent Michaels, H: Photo-Auto Guide, Chicago to Rockford (1905), book spread [online]. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Available at: [accessed 27/04/2016]

[c] Shore, S: Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah, August 10, 1973, photograph [online]. Edwynn Houk Gallery Tumblr, New York/Zurich. Available at: [accessed 27/04/2016]

[d] Friedlander, L: America by Car, 1995-2009, photograph [online]. Whitney Museum of Art, New York. Available at: [accessed 27/04/2016]

[e] Patterson, C: Redheaded Peckerwood, 2011, book spread [online]. Photo-eye Blog. Available at: [accessed 27/04/2016]

[f] Kodak: Kodak as you go, 1920, advertisement [online]. Duke University Library, Durham. Available at: [accessed 27/04/2016]

[g] Brisco, R: GSV Research – Millerground Landing, 2013, screen capture.

[h] Brisco, R: Millerground Landing, 2013, photograph.

[i] Brisco, R: Landelo, 2016, photograph.

[j] Brisco, R: Untitled (Drive), 2015, photograph.

Campany, D. 2014. The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip. New York. Aperture Foundation
Evans. W. 2012. American Photographs. 75th Anniversary Edition. London. Tate Publishing
Frank. R. 2008. The Americans. Göttingen. Steidl.
Friedlander, L. 2010. America by Car. New York. Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.
Patterson, C. 2011. Redheaded Peckerwood. London. Mack Books.
Shore, S. 2004. Uncommon Places. London. Thames & Hudson Ltd.
Soth. A. 2010. From Here to There. Minneapolis. Walker Art Center.
Wells, L. 2011. Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity. London. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.

Polino, J. 2013. A Street View: Doug Rickard And The New American Picture [Online]. Available at: [accessed 27/04/2016]
Of the land & us. 2016. Untitled (Garry Loughlin interview) [Online]. Available at: [accessed 27/04/2016]

Other Internet References
Stephen Shore Instragram: [accessed 27/04/2016]
555uHz Twitter stream: [accessed 27/04/2016]
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