Photo Book Review: The Open Road, Photography & the American Road Trip

Open road coverWhen I buy a photo book, I tend to be more interested in monographs than thematic books. But I’ve always been interested in the road trip, particularly in the United States, where this idea is almost as iconic as the European “grand tour” of the 19th century. People have set out on cross-country trips since the car became commonplace, sometimes to move to a new city for a new job, and sometimes for pleasure.

Many photographers have done this too, as a way of looking for a way to portray the multiple faces of the United States, and its contradictions. This book, The Open Road, published by the Aperture Foundation (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), looks at road trips by 18 photographers, from Robert Frank in the 1950s to contemporary photographers.

In 336 pages, with 248 color and duotone images, this book paints a picture of the United States, as seen through the eyes of a number of great photographers. It makes no attempt to be exhaustive, but focuses on a number of photographers who have made iconic photos in this genre. Each photographer has their own chapter, and the chapters run chronologically, from Robert Frank’s 1955-1956 photos through the 2005-2008 photos of Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs.

The photographers included are: Robert Frank, Ed Ruscha, Inge Morath, Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Jacob Holdt, Stephen Shore, Bernard Plossu, Victor Burgin, Joel Sternfeld, Alec Soth, Todd Hido, Ryan McGinley, Justine Kurland, and Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs.

Not everyone will like all the photos, of course, but this book contains selections of some of the most interesting road trip photos from the included photographers. Not all of these photographers set out on road trips per se, but they all traveled across the US, shooting pictures in different ways.

I’m particularly struck by the photos by Garry Winogrand, whose work I don’t know very well. He manages to catch a “street photography” vibe, but not just in cities. William Eggleston is represented by a fine selection of works from his Los Alamos series (see my review of his Los Alamos Revisited). A number of Joel Meyerowitz’s photos were shot from the car, and he said that he realized that “the car window was the frame.” Stephen Shore’s photos of the quotidian, taken from his series Uncommon Places, show an America both familiar and yet strange. Alec Soth’s photos from Sleeping by the Mississippi are oddly disquieting. And Todd Hido’s dreamlike photos show an America that may not exist.

The Open Road is a very interesting book, chock full of arresting images, that not only covers a genre of photography, but also introduces you to a number of photographers that you probably don’t know. It’s affordable, and it’s a book you may find yourself coming back to. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Here are a few two-page spreads from the book, and a video that the Aperture Foundation created to promote the book. But they really aren’t indicative of the quality and selection of photos in this selection.

Open road 2

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2 thoughts on “Photo Book Review: The Open Road, Photography & the American Road Trip

  1. A real shame Richard Avedon’s “In the American West” series was not included. That body of work, collected over four years, is the epitome of the great American road trip, with he and his assistants stopping in various cities in the western US, meeting and mingling with interesting subjects, and ultimately making their portraits.

    Avedon’s body of work was controversial in that he portrayed a “West” not known by many, and far from the glamorized Hollywood west most people were familiar with through the media. Indeed, at the time the body of work was released there was a great deal of controversy, mostly about Avedon being a New Yorker and not having any business about defining what the West was about.

    Fortunately, Avedon’s assistant Laura Wilson, documented the adventure and 30 years later released a book called “Avedon at Work: In the American West.” That’s one of my most prized photo books, liking it more than Avedon’s book “In the American West,” as it shows the contexts that Avedon worked within. Every time I pick up the book and thumb through it I want to hit the road with mu camera.

  2. A real shame Richard Avedon’s “In the American West” series was not included. That body of work, collected over four years, is the epitome of the great American road trip, with he and his assistants stopping in various cities in the western US, meeting and mingling with interesting subjects, and ultimately making their portraits.

    Avedon’s body of work was controversial in that he portrayed a “West” not known by many, and far from the glamorized Hollywood west most people were familiar with through the media. Indeed, at the time the body of work was released there was a great deal of controversy, mostly about Avedon being a New Yorker and not having any business about defining what the West was about.

    Fortunately, Avedon’s assistant Laura Wilson, documented the adventure and 30 years later released a book called “Avedon at Work: In the American West.” That’s one of my most prized photo books, liking it more than Avedon’s book “In the American West,” as it shows the contexts that Avedon worked within. Every time I pick up the book and thumb through it I want to hit the road with mu camera.

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