Mix one part Robert Frank, one part Uncommon Spaces-era Stephen Shore, and two parts Joel Sternfeld, toss in a pinch of Alec Soth, shrink it down to 1/4 size, then blow it back up again and fast forward 30 years, and what do you have? It’s Joshua Dudley Greer’s Somewhere Along the Line.
Warning: my thoughts on this are somewhat muddled, and I’m feeling rushed (for no good reason). Apologies in advance, readers, and especially Greer.
For Somewhere Along the Line, Greer spent 6 years of weekends and holidays and sabbaticals and whatever* crisscrossing the United States, going all over (except to Hawaii, as no roads go there), over 100,000 miles, everywhere an Interstate could take him. But instead of flying by on his way to somewhere else, he actually stopped to look around, maybe try to find a picture.
Now, first off, I should say something about the environment. I’ve struggled with this, as I like a good car trip as much as anyone. My mom lives around 380 miles away and I’m unlikely to ever fly there (the nearest airport to her is an hour drive, and, as I said, I love a good car trip). And if my darling, adorable wife and I are going on vacation within the US, and we have the time, we’d both rather drive than fly. It just gives more freedom. I really can’t say much. My wife and I have probably traveled close to 100K miles in the last 7 years, looping around the state, back and forth to Mom’s, the 2015 drive to Chicago and back via Memphis, etc. Still. 100,000 miles on the US Interstate Highways for a photobook gives me pause and makes me want to moralize.
The only way of doing something like this in an environmentally responsible way would be to use public transportation, but then you couldn’t stop on the side of the highway to photograph and father and son watching the aftermath of a firey car crash; you couldn’t climb down under the overpass and photograph a homeless family’s tent with its Christmas tree out front; you couldn’t see something out the window, veer off the highway or screech to a stop and lug out your 4×5 or 8×10, find your photograph(s), set up, and take the shot, then break it all back down and pack up again at will. And this is the same reason my darling, adorable wife and I travel by car… well, I usually don’t travel with a 4×5,* but we do prefer to be able to stop for a restroom or to stretch our legs or just because we saw something interesting, and you’re never going to see anything interesting from an Airplane, and even if you do, good luck stopping to take a photograph.
Now, when I travel by car, I try to stay off of Interstate Highways as much as possible. Interstates are too plane-like, they have a flyover character. When we travel by Interstate, we speed by everything that might make a place unique or different. When we do exit, for gasoline or a snack, pretty much every exit looks pretty much like every other exit, with a couple of gas stations, a couple of fast food places, maybe a simple hotel, maybe a car repair place. And if you want to see something different, you’ve got to travel a bit away from the sameness. Indeed, here in 2020, decades after the Interstates came into being, you have to go a long way to find anything unique. Most all of the old bypassed stores have closed, the buildings torn down, everything’s been rebuilt closer to the highway and more samey, more like the fast food that you can find at nearly every exit—the architecture of a strip mall, the office park, the big distribution center don’t vary much, about as much as a bean burrito from a Taco Bell in Keller, TX might vary from a Taco Bell bean burrito in Holbrook, NY or Springfield, IL. Sure, travel by Interstate is slower and more personal than air travel, but the Interstates are far removed from the older, slower, more human-scaled, human-paced state highways and roads, which are somehow closer to walking. You can feel the wind, smell the fields, hear the creek babbling at 55mph, but never at 85.
Anyway. I suppose none of that has much of anything to do with Greer or Somewhere Along the Line…
Early on, above, I compared Greer’s photographs to Sternfeld and Shore and Soth. And the comparison is more than superficial. Looking through Greer’s book, I keep being reminded of one or another of the last generation (or two, or three) of photographers of
road trips America. Greer has a picture of an older highway interchange that looks remarkably like Shore’s photograph over the restaurant—you know the one. Greer has a picture of prisoners on a work program: in his picture, three prisoners are at the back of a white bus, getting ready to do some landscape maintenance, stooping and bending to pick up weed eaters and leaf blowers. It’s reminiscent of Soth’s picture of the prisoners standing near a maroon car on the side of a highway, chainsaws and shovels at the ready. Soth’s subjects posed for him; Greer seems to have caught the gentlemen unaware, though given that he shot with 4×5 or 8×10, it’s very likely that the prisoners (and Sheriff/Guards) were aware. Greer has pictures of people’s feet hanging out of truck windows and tents, and compare to Sternfeld’s photo of feet hanging out the back of a car from the new-ish revised edition of his American Prospects.
In all cases, Greer’s photo isn’t exactly the same as Shore’s or Soth’s or Sternfeld’s, in fact, they’re really very different. Yet, simultaneously, they’re the same, or, rather, as I flip through the book I keep thinking of Shore and Soth and Sternfeld, keep thinking I’ve seen these pictures before, even though I really haven’t.
I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. I guess it’s neither good nor bad, but just is. Surely Greer is aware of Sternfeld and Soth and Shore (and Frank and Evans, for that matter), and surely that awareness has some sort of impact on the photographs he sees, sets up for, captures. Sadly, I rarely look at my own photographs and think of Sternfeld or Shore. I’d like to, but I don’t. When I’m out photographing, I often think of Shore or Frank or Sternfeld or Eggleston or Foote and sorta try to frame things like that, sometimes, but then I develop and scan the film and guess what? My photographs don’t even come close.**
Anyway, here I am in the weeds again. I’m not sure I really have much else to say about Somewhere Along the Line. The pictures are certainly competent and many of them are really pretty good. If they compare at all to the best, the classic Shore or Sternfeld or Soth, then they’re probably good-enough. In fact, looking again, I see a bit of Paul Graham in some of these. Greer has a picture of a gentleman sitting on a mobility chair in a parking garage. It took me many viewings to figure out what he’s doing there, and then I saw it: his chair is plugged into an electric panel. And the picture reminds me of something from Graham’s work in the United States. And it kinda makes me sad or, not sad per se, but more bummed out.***
Pull out your copy of Evans’ American Photographs and take a fresh look; look at Frank’s The Americans; sit with Shore’s American Surfaces and Uncommon Places; then Sternfeld’s American Prospects. Spend some time Sleeping by the Mississippi with Soth, take a detour past Graham’s US work (captured in its entirety in The Whiteness of the Whale, but see also American Night, a shimmer of possibility, and The Present), and finish with Greer’s Somewhere Along the Line. There’s a clear throughline, and its’ more of a clear punchline.
Have we ever been great?
Given my ambivalence and the way this book leaves me feeling, I can’t possibly rate it with any justice.
If you don’t have any of the books I mentioned above, buy those first. You can find good, clean copies of the Evans and Frank books for cheap, and the Shore, Sternfeld, and Soth classics have recently been reprinted and are available for a bit more. Then, once you’ve gorged yourself on the best of the American Road Trip canon (maybe also check out the David Campany’s The Open Road all about the canon of American Road Trip photography… I don’t have it, not yet anyway), then get a more contemporary view with Greer’s Somewhere Along the Line. There’s more poverty and homelessness, more demolition and construction, with each passing decade. It’s depressing.
*Maybe road-tripping with large format cameras is his 9-5?
**I initial wrote “Guess What? I suck.” here, but thought that might be a bit too forward. Truthful, but just too inviting of disagreement or whatever.
***Recent comments—I won’t link to them—from South Korea and some Patriots here in the US, regarding our collective response to the COVID-19 outbreak, question the first world status of the United States, call us backward and whatnot, and guess what? They’re right.