Photographs of America, On The Road

Ileana Selejan
Mar 16, 2013 12:55AM

“Madroad driving men ahead – the mad road, lonely, leading around the bend into the openings of space towards the horizon […]” wrote Jack Kerouac in his 1959 introduction to the U.S. edition of Robert Frank’s legendary photo-book, The Americans. If one was to quickly put together a list of other 20th century photographers who have undertaken long journeys along and across the North American continent, it will, no doubt, include Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth – a gendered endeavor, in fact historically linked to the gendering of the landscape itself. Whether vernacular or sublime, this vast territory formed the ideal backdrop for male fantasy. As Richard Prince appropriately observed: in his pastiche element, the cowboy cohabited the same landscape of desire as the outlaw, the recluse, the wanderer, the poet.            

From the mid-nineteenth century on, numerous photographers traveled “towards the horizon,” to explore and document the superlative expanse of the U.S. Some worked on government commissions – notably former Civil War photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, official photographer on several U.S. Geological Survey expeditions between 1867 and 1874, and others on commercial assignment, as was the case of the Langenheim Brothers, tourist photography pioneers. Like the earliest European colonizers, they too understood that to see is to know, and to know is to possess.

In the postwar context, the question became whether photographers can circumnavigate their subjects i.e. America or The Americans without ever capitalizing on discovering (and in the process creating) identity. Feeding onto an expanded notion of the Situationist dérive, the roadside perspective allows subjects to develop, at times even take precedence over the route. One must get lost, become estranged, in order to find. A sense of movement, instead of progress - which many of these frames from Frank to Soth contradict, ensues. 

Photography thus constructs a space for memory, where history and identity are continuously challenged and negotiated.  The road becomes a fitting metaphor for this state of flux, continuing to inspire narratives of escape. 

Ileana Selejan
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019