Unboxing ‘Highway Kind’

Highway Kind collects images from Justine Kurland’s 2007 -2014 travels around the United States in a customized Astro Van, first with with her young son, Casper, then alone. Interspersed throughout are 8 very short stories by Lynn Tillman, character sketches, mostly, that add a bit flavor. The photographs were culled from a couple of bodies of work—This Train is Bound for Glory, and Sincere Auto Care (maybe others)—and move from trains in lush landscapes, to people that hop them and their campsites, to road trips, living on the road, auto repair and the grease and oil stains in parking lots. Coupled with Lynn Tillman’s text, the book presents a portrait of America, down by the tracks, on the road: beautiful, a little bit worn, full of possibility (possibly squandered), independent, distrustful, loyal, a little bit Emerson, a little bit PT Barnum, a little bit Billy from Easy Rider: people “who went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere.”

Justine Kurland has spent her professional photography career largely on the road, photographing runaways and young women in fairytale landscapes and utopian communes in Virginia and California. In 2004, she gave birth to a son, and took him on the road with her. Travelling with Casper changed her photography as she began photographing the trains that obsessed her young companion and the people she met in her travels. In one sense, Kurland works in a similar vein to Joel Sternfeld and Alec Soth, traveling around, meeting people, photographing private moments and the landscapes they happen in, with occasional portraits thrown in. But, then, Sternfeld and Soth weren’t pulling out bins of legos every time they stopped to take a picture, or waiting hours and hours for a train to come, or the car to get fixed. Or, if they were, it’s left out of their books.

At one point in their travels, Justine yelled “You know, Jeff Wall does not have to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the middle of his photo shoots!” and Casper replied “Oh yeah? What else does Jeff Wall not have to do?”

I’m a little bit jealous of Casper’s childhood, but if he has the same amount, specificity, and accuracy of memories from ages 1-6 as I do, they’re probably similar: working class people, little forgotten bits of land, legos. But where I had bicycles and familiar locations and cousins right down the street, he had the Mama Car and trains and endless travel.

In interviews (here’s one with Vice, for example), Kurland talks about the change motherhood brought about in her. In previous series, she immersed herself in the communities she chronicled, but with a young son in tow, it’s not like she could hop trains or sleep in camps with the hobos. It would be easy to label her a voyeur, there on the fringes, always a spectator and never a participant, but her pictures are kinder and more personal, somehow, than that would suggest: shooting portraits of hobos and junkies with a view camera, you’ve got to be patient and wait for that pose, that glance, that flip of the hair or whatever.

These aren’t the snapshots of some mere voyeur. It seems like Kurland cares about these landscapes, these people. There’s a sensitivity and care in these photographs, a love of the landscape, and a sort of utopian vision that’s all but absent from the press surrounding the work.

The publisher’s blurb sticker on the back of the book, for example, claims these are “pictures that test the dream of America against its reality.” (On the Aperture site, they change it to “the idea of the American dream juxtaposed against the reality.”) While this is true, I think there’s another layer to it, a dignity and resilience, a freedom that is worth romanticizing. In an interview on HuffPo, Kurland describes her practice as “trying to find something true – some lingering ghost of American identity and history. ” I think that’s quite different than testing the dream, and also different from the characters in the Tillman stories.

Tillman texts, while also excellent and evocative, are largely secondary, and I’m not entirely sure why they’re in there. Take this brief story, for example:

Some guys were satisfied, he saw them in cities, at peace with themselves. Businessmen and their pricey briefcases, proud papas, with IRAs, their babies pressed to their narrow chests. Cocks of the park. Their young women expected everything. His friend told him, years ago, “Oh, she’s not for you, buddy. She’s too good for you.” He didn’t believe it, then.

The preceding page features a 2012 picture of Casper, lying across the hood of a car, shirtless, holding a stick and gazing at the camera with a sort of bored, “again?” sort of expression, titled Pirate, and a 2010 photo, Humming Bird, of a partially completed jigsaw puzzle featuring a large hummingbird, on a dining table in a travel bus or camper. On the following pages, Weed Trimmers spreads across the gutter, and shows a man and a woman, presumably a couple, him with a small backpack and sleeping bag on his back, her with a large hiking backpack and a huge bedroll; him with a small dog, probably a puppy, and her with a larger, adult dog, perhaps the mother. A chain link fence separates them from a 76 gas station with maybe a cell tower in the back, and another couple having lunch on a picnic table.

The story, in this case, is nearly as random as the pictures, really. I say “nearly” because the pictures are all sort of related: outdoors, traveling, the empty times on the road. And the other stories are similar, character sketches that probably have nothing to do with the photographs. Is the guy with the little backpack and little dog thinking about the suits and “their women” as he walks down the road with the woman? Given the other stories in Highway Kind, I doubt it, so what are they doing there?

Kurland has a more generous and much better understanding of the Tillman stories that I. In an interview between her and Casper on the Aperture site, she says “Lynne Tillman’s stories blow against my photographs in a way that stirs up meaning.” Stirs up, yes, but it takes something away too, I think. Maybe I’m feeling a bit jaded and bitter… This really is a good book, with great pictures, it’s just that the branding takes it down a notch, in my mind: I have some romanticism for the American West, those landscapes, and the travelers and hobos that live on the fringes of society.

I count Captain America and Billy amongst my adolescent heroes, and I’ve yet to shake it.

I’ve gone off on a tangent a bit. Not all of Highway Kind is so easily idealized: It’s harder to romanticize life on the road, when you remember auto repair. Maybe that’s where the dream gets deferred: the dream of the endless summer road trip, always already interrupted or delayed by oil changes, bent struts, brake jobs, and the like. The road may go on forever, but the party has to end sometimes. I guess maybe that’s the whole theme.

I’ve been working on this review for several weeks, now. I’m not sure I’ve captured everything I think about this book, and I know I haven’t scratched the surface of it, either, so it’s probably a pretty good book! I usually don’t think so much, so deeply about these books. The concept is solid, but colored a bit by the press around it; the content is incredible, and I’d love to see this work in a show somewhere; the printing and binding are of the quality I’ve come to expect from Aperture, but I’m a little bit put off by the wood grain cover. I guess it looks a bit like a national park sign or something, but I’m not sure why it’s there… probably not thinking deeply enough: I did a bunch of shallow thinking around this book and the pictures and stories in it…

Concept
Content
Design
 

Overall, I’d give Highway Kind a solid 4 stars.

New copies remain available, and it’s worth every penny of the (at time of writing) $35 Aperture wants for it.

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