The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip, is an inspiring collection of photographs featuring the best and the worst of America’s roadway — all organized by the Aperture Foundation of New York. The exhibition, on view at the Blanton Museum of Art, should come with a warning: If you suffer from wanderlust or are prone to spontaneous road trips, proceed with caution.
As a self-professed terrible photographer, looking through the exhibition didn’t draw my eye toward techniques or themes, but rather the subject’s emotions and the motivation of a photographer to take that photo in particular. I wanted to know the story. With short label text on most images, my imagination wandered and ultimately I thought of my own memories on the road.
Most summers of my childhood included piling into a van with my parents, two sisters and any friends willing to caravan with us, as we set out to some far-off destination. Along the way, my father, a photographer, would stop for pictures at interesting rest stops and tourist traps along the highway. One summer I’d read a book in which the character drank a chocolate soda. I’d never heard of such a thing and we stopped at every roadside gas station or diner I could talk my parents into until I found one. It was just as weird as I’d expected.
Looking out on endless road brings so much mystery and unknown. The car window acts much like a camera lens, shaping what you see. The photos of this exhibition take you to someone else’s car window for a glimpse of their adventure. While some images appear as benign as those in my own family photo albums — waterparks, a mother breast-feeding at a campground or a generic double-bed motel room with a cheap, patterned comforter — others pull you into an experience of the photographer.
In one Lee Friedlander image, you see the reflection of him in the vehicle’s side mirror leaning out of his window to snap a picture. You have to look beyond him to discover what compelled him to take the photo. Another shows tourists staring toward you through binoculars. I immediately felt the tourist’s anxiety of “what am I missing out on” that comes when you see other people staring in awe at something you don’t see. But what is it? Looking above their head’s in the photograph you see the reflection of Mount Rushmore.
This image reminded me of my family’s trip to Hoover Dam. We infuriated my father, who rarely said anything more aggressive than “gosh darned it,” by saying the word dam as often as possible along the way: “Can we see the dam gift shop? Is this the dam road? I want a dam souvenir.” By the time we pulled up to the massive concrete structure, no one was happy or wanted to get out of the car. Instead we looked through the windows to the many other tourists with binoculars and cameras.
Growing into adulthood I learned road trips aren’t always filled with family and fun. Sometimes you find yourself alone along a quiet stretch of road. Looking at Justine Kurland’s image of a young boy playing with a train set in the middle of desert brought that sting of loneliness to my heart. The child looks far into the distance as if seeking someone to join him.
As a reminder road trips weren’t quite so simple before the days of iPhones and Google Maps, curators included the 1910 edition of The Rand McNally Photo-Auto Guide: Chicago to New York, New York to Chicago. Arrows printed on photographs give step-by-step turn instructions with space to take notes.
Meanwhile Black America used a very different sort of guide. Traveling in America, particularly the South, could be a harrowing journey for African-Americans in the Jim Crowe era. The exhibition includes a worn, stained 1953 edition of The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, courtesy of the Briscoe Center for American History. For three decades Victor H. Green’s travel guide provided information for black-owned or -friendly hotels.
Its cover doesn’t entice and lure customers with the fun adventures ahead, as a travel book for white Americans might. Instead, the cover reads, “Carry your green book with you, you might need it.”
I wanted to see inside, read the warnings and advice and also see how imagery and photographs were used within it, but the Green Book sits under glass. Though it went out of print in the 1960s, I imagine that information of this nature is now easily shared online. Earlier this year a Yelp reviewer warned of racism at a Rainey Street bar.
So much of planning a trip is looking through glossy, beautiful images of happy people and shining sunsets along beachfront highways, but this exhibition shows the rawness of America’s roadways across decades. It has nostalgia of childhood and inspiration of what lies ahead — opportunity, the mystery, and the dream made possible with just a camera, a tank of gas, and the open road.
The Open Road is on view at the Blanton Museum of Art through January 7, 2018.