The Open Road: Photography & The American Road Trip is a large, heavy, coffee table-type survey of major photographic projects that dealt with the United States as seen by car, from car or hotel windows, while on road trips across, back and forth, up and down, or all around the country, and it’s maybe the worst book to try to review when you’re in photobook-buying-budgeting mode…
I don’t recall another photobook that had me diving into bookfinder.com during virtually every chapter… and again while writing the review… May God forgive me, and I didn’t (read “couldn’t afford to”) buy them all, but, well, expect some links back to this article in the future… smh.
The Open Road is basically organized like an exhibition catalog: there’s an introductory essay that traces the development of the US Highway system and concurrent development of photographic travel guides, maps, and seconds later, photographic road trips; Campany then takes readers through a survey of some major, groundbreaking, art-historically important photographic road trip projects, with a little write up of each project and a series of selected images from the project; and the book ends with a series of maps charting the road trips, location of photographs made for the completed project and the photographs included in the book. Altogether, it sorta reminds me of the Looking In book, though The Open Road was never an exhibition, as far as I know.
Campany organizes the selected projects roughly chronologically, starting with the road trip project by which all others are judged, Robert Frank’s trip(s) for The Americans. Of course, Frank looked at and used Walker Evans’ American Pictures as a model, and Campany makes brief mention of Evans in the Introduction, but for whatever reason, it’s not included for larger study. and continues through the trips made by:
- Robert Frank, 1955-1956, NY to LA via a zig-zag route down the Atlantic coast and across the south, then back to NY with several detours all over the northern half of the country, on a Guggenheim Fellowship for what became The Americans
- Ed Rucha, 1962, LA to Oklahoma City for his Twentysix Gasoline Stations
- Inge Morath, 1960, NYC to Reno (with Henri Cartier-Bresson), that became The Road to Reno
- Garry Winogrand, 1964, all over (sometimes with Friedlander) on a Guggenheim Fellowship that only became 1964 posthumously
- William Eggleston, 1965-1974, for the “Los Alamos Portfolio,” and put into book form in 2003 with Los Alamos (Scalo) and more fully with Los Alamos Revisited (Steidl, 2011)
- Lee Friedlander, 1969-1975, all over, for the project that became The American Monument
- Joel Meyerowitz, 1967-1976, all over, for an unpublished maquette called “Still Going,” selections from which appear in Where I Find Myself and elsewhere
- Jacob Holdt, 1971-1976, hitchhiking all over, for Amerikanske billeder (American Pictures)
- Stephen Shore, 1973-1981, all over, for Uncommon Places
- Bernard Plossu, 1970-1985, all over, that only became So Long in 2007
- Victor Burgin, 1977, all over, for US77
- Joel Sternfeld, 1978-1983, for American Prospects
- Shinya Fujiwara, 1988, from NY to LA via the northern route, then back via the southern route, in a motor home for American Roulette
- Alec Soth, 1999-2002, along the Mississippi River for Sleeping by the Mississippi
- Todd Hido, 2006-2010, random points, for A Road Divided
- Ryan McGinley, 2004-2014, various cross-country trips for The Journey is the Destination
- Justine Kurland, 2007-2014, all over, for Highway Kind
- Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs, 2005-2008, mostly with a toy/model road, for The Great Unreal
Most of these projects follow directly from Frank and share something of his sensibility, pointing out or gesturing at some of the problems or disappointments or frailties in the American project, albeit with shifting cultural norms, some more sharp, others more cynical, still others more joking, but pretty much all of with an element of critique. Even Onorato & Krebs, with their very constructed, not really road-trip at all photographs, seem to be caricaturing American ideals. But then there’s Ryan McGinley, who, whatever you think of his photography, seems to have more to do with joy and (something like) innocence than anything, and they’re certainly not cynical or critical. His beautifully colored fantasies provide a sort of ray of sunshine near the end, with TONK then reminding everyone that the American project is more image than reality.
The shadow of Frank loomed long and dark, but seems to be fading somewhat after 60 years, and it’s interesting to see how different photographers took on the (major, art-historical) photographic road trip, what sorts of images they made and what sorts of projects they made from those images. I have just two complaints: first, that some of the road trips never became books or exhibitions (Meyerowitz’s “Still Going” is a mock-up, and a small section in Where I Find Myself; Eggleston’s Los Alamos Portfolio is just a collection of prints somewhere), and the font choice. Sometimes, letters with stems (“t” and “p” particularly) have a strange sort of flag hanging off if they follow “s” or “c”. It’s not every occurrence (on page 302, “Casper” appears once without the strange flag connecting “s” and “p”, and once with the weird flag). I found this flag distracting, and it made the introductory essay particularly difficult to read. Your mileage may vary, of course, but book designers: please use standard-ish fonts!
Overall, The Open Road gets a solid 4 stars, and is only brought down by the horrible and inconsistent font choice.
Now, insofar as it’s 2020, partway through a major, international pandemic and with climate change in obvious and full effect, major road trips of the types undertaken in the past are largely irresponsible, I think. Maybe with advances in electric car infrastructure (and electric cars) they’ll become viable again, but for now, I honestly can’t justify it. Plus, Frank, Rucha, Morath, Winogrand, Eggleston, Friedlander, Meyerowitz, Holdt, Shore, Plossu, Burgin, Sternfeld, Fujiwara, Soth, Hido, McGinley, Kurland, and TONK already did it, and did it better than I (probably) could, especially (and interestingly) since most undertook their major road trip projects in their 20s and early 30s, and largely settled down in later life.
That said, I’m still driving… to Arkansas last July to visit Mom (about 380 miles); to Tyler, Denton, Weatherford, and various points in between with my darling, adorable wife, pretty much every weekend during the pandemic (80-200 miles/weekend). And that’s just in 2020, with the pandemic raging. Regular readers may recall the various near-annual road trips we’ve taken in the past. While I absolutely abhor hypocrisy, it seems I’m as guilty of it as anyone…
Anyway. The Open Road is a lovely historical document, looking at an artistic phenomenon that lasted for the better part of a century, but is now perhaps becoming passé. It’s also one of the better ways to see about 60 years of American land- and cityscapes, especially since most places no longer look like they did when the famous photographers took their famous pictures. Sadly, it’s long out of print and prices on the used market are rather dear. So maybe just get a copy of The Americans (the recent Steidl reprint is in its millionth printing and is excellent) and spend some time with it, then look up images from the other projects online. And please don’t go chasing every road trip book you can find, please don’t be like me. Many are incredibly expensive and your money is better spent on almost anything… I promise. I’m generally not a fan of survey-type books like this one, but since several of the projects are way out of my league, it’s good to have some of the more famous pictures in this well-written and well produced volume.
If you’re curious as to which one(s) I ordered, well… I could leave you in suspense, but then it’s unlikely that many people will read this far, and if you have, it’s doubtful you’ll remember or be paying attention to my unboxing videos or the reviews that dribble out here, so: the Morath, because it’s also textual (she took her typewriter along and made notes) and I have a thing for photobooks that have a textual element; ditto the Holdt (though the bookseller tried to more than quintuple the shipping cost—$12 in the original order to $68, to ship USPS Media Mail from Portland to Dallas—so I may hunt for another copy elsewhere, though, having looked at a few spreads, I may skip it altogether); the Fujiwara, because how could I not? but because it’s super expensive I ordered a copy from a dodgy Russian site and we’ll see; the McGinley, because it was cheap and the color is so joyous and I need more joyous color in my life.
The Burgin appears in Between, unboxing coming in February, review who knows. The Rucha, Winogrand, Eggleston, and Hido books are all out of print and go for more than I’m wiling to spend on a photobook at present, and probably ever. Hopefully reprints will happen at some point, and if history holds, Nazreli will reprint the Hido in a year or three as they have with House Hunting. Others didn’t quite trip my trigger enough to go looking for… Shoot. Of 18, I already owned 7 (and as much of one as has ever been published), I bought 3 or 4 and would’ve bought 4 more if I could afford them, so that leaves, what, 2? Sheesh. Shame on me.
And, again, may God forgive me for wasting the sustenance He provides. Don’t be like me.