ILF and Petrov’s American Road Trip

What a wonderful bookend to Robert Capa and John Steinbeck’s Russian Journal

I had never heard of this book until just recently. It was probably unknown to even Capa and Steinbeck writing a decade later.

In 1935. the Soviet collaborative satirical writers Ilya Ilf (1897-1937) and Evgeny Petrov (1903—1942) traveled to the United States where they journeyed from New York to California and back by automobile. Two Months in a Ford In 1935 Ilf and Petrov traveled to the United States as special correspondents for Pravda the official newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party to which they contributed a series of articles during the trip. Shortly after their arrival in New York in early October aboard the French luxury liner Normandie they purchased a Ford automobile and went in search of America- Erika Wolf


The narrative was a combination of humorous criticism and awe at the American way of doing things. It was written at a time when America and Russia were still nominally on friendly terms. It would seem to ILF and Petrov easy to criticize our way of life, that is until Stalin started his murderous purges after this book was published

Petrov and ILF

The roads are one of the most remarkable phenomena of American life. American specifically not just American technology. Sometimes these signs display a fairly dark humor. Back east we saw this billboard on the road: “Drive carefully. Cemetery after bend in road.” Apropos of cemeteries: this is the kind of cemetery you come across most in America. It’s an automobile cemetery. New cars replace the antique ones which have broken down for good. 

There are many attractive qualities in the character of the American people. They are excellent workers jacks-of-all-trades. Our engineers say that working with Americans is pure pleasure. They are precise but not so much as to be pedantic. They are neat and punctual without being so fussy that other people would start to make fun of them for it. They know how to keep their word and they trust other people’s words. They are always ready to help.

Americans just aren’t curious. This is especially true of young people. We drove sixthousand kilometers on American roads and almost every day we took into the automobile fellow travelers who were waiting for a break on the side of the road. More often than not they were young men looking for work They talked about themselves gladly, even with pleasure. And not a single one of them ever asked who we were, where we were going or what language we were speaking with each other. Don’t think this was the result of excessive delicacy. Quite the contrary-Americans are even a little rude. They simply weren’t interested. 

About American Indians they wrote:

You can physically destroy the Indians; they are powerless to resist. But you can never defeat them. They hate and disdain the white peddlers, in a sense their palefaced brothers, who tried to destroy them for centuries and finally drove them into the barren desert. This hatred drips from an Indian’s every glance. He will tie a newborn child to a flat board and place him right on the dirty earth floor of a wigwam, but he doesn’t want to take any culture from a white man. Indians are almost completely unassimilated into white culture. This centuries-old stubborn resistance by the Indian is probably one of the most remarkable phenomena in world history

And on Hollywood they felt:

No! It’s not enough to say that American cinema isn’t art. It’s a moral epidemic, no less destructive and dangerous than cholera or the plague. All the tremendous accomplishments of American culture -schools, universities, literature, theater-all are crestfallen before the film industry. You can graduate from twenty schools and universities and after a few years of regular cinema attendance turn into a total idiot. In Washington, the capital of the United States, there is not one single theater for all five hundred thousand of its inhabitants. There are only movie palaces. And in small towns people don’t even know what theater is.

The quotes above give a general idea of the tone of the book. Their commentary is not too dissimilar to Andy Rooney of ’60 minutes’ fame. Or even Will Rogers to pick someone from that era. This road trip book is not to be missed for anyone serious about the genre.

The Road to Reno

The Road to Reno was Inge Morath’s book about her first trip across the United States following a red grease-pencil line drawn by her traveling companion, Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 1960 the two drove from New York through Gettysburg, Memphis, and Albuquerque to Reno. They were among 18 photojournalists commissioned by Magnum to document the Nevada set of Arthur Miller’s The Misfits.

The destination was momentous for Morath–she took remarkable photographs, and later married Miller after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe–but it is the trip, the 18 days she spent traveling, as documented in both photographs and journal entries, (“written each night at the table in a motel room that was always in a different place but always looked the same”), that in its casualness can unfold for readers her carefully observed, insightful, and compassionate approach to reportage.

Traveling westward, Morath combines a foreigner’s awe of alien terrain with the curiosity of small-town life, offering glimpses into rather than encapsulations of her experience at each stop.

Her entry for Las Vegas -“receives you wearing stage makeup in full daylight with the sophistication of a ham actor in an ambulant road show. Morath’s photographs from this trip are humorous and ironic and occasionally,and atypically disdainful. echoing Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958); though with a lighter valence. Her pictures condemn the kitschy spaces, and the typical disrespect for older, often handsomer structures .

Capa , Steinbeck & Russian Road Trip

This is the story of how Robert Capa war photographer and John Steinbeck went on a road trip across Russia. Not originally billed as a road trip it surely was. The year was 1948 and mutual suspicion was rampant in the USA and Russia; their goal was to actually go to Russia and see for themselves what the country and the people were like.

“Their joint commitment to record only what they could witness—based not on research or speculation but on visual record—is their full story.”-

“There must be a private life of the Russian people, and that we could not read about because no one wrote about it, and no one photographed it.” – John Steinbeck

World War II was only 3 years in the past and the immense destruction was all about them. It was also a time of relentless rebuilding. Everywhere they went, Russians would ask if the United States was going to invade them? The citizens were war wearing and looking for any assurance that this was not in ‘the plans’.

“More and more we were realizing how much the Russian people live on hope, hope that tomorrow will be better than today.”- Steinbeck

This 40 day excursion took place when Russia was in the process of building their own Atom Bomb – thanks to help of several spies including Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs. It was a year after this book was published that they successfully detonated their device.

To say the least this book was criticized for being naive as the pair was shown only what the authorities would allow them to see. I still think their book has validities especially in terms of their description of the people they met.

“It was true of most of the young people we met. And it was interesting to us that the attitudes of our most conservative and old-fashioned groups are found in the attitudes of the young people of the Soviet Union.”

Steinbeck and Capa

“Well, there it is. It’s about what we went for. We found, as we had suspected, that the Russian people are people, and, as with other people, that they are very nice. The ones we met had a hatred of war, they wanted the same things all people want—good lives, increased comfort, security, and peace. We know that this journal will not be satisfactory either to the ecclesiastical Left, nor the lumpen Right. The first will say it is anti-Russian, and the second that it is pro-Russian. Surely it is superficial, and how could it be otherwise? We have no conclusions to draw, except that Russian people are like all other people in the world. Some bad ones there are surely, but by far the greater number are very good.”

Limelight

Helen Gee

Limelight was a unique place when it opened in 1954. It was arguably the first coffee shop + serious photography gallery under one roof. It was the singleminded idea of Helen Gee. The time was 1954 in NY City and no one had thought of combining these two. As it was photography was trying to move from a newspaper/magazine venue to what we might call fine art photography and photojournalism.

There was barely a movement in America to devote time and space to photography in museums. Selling photography was also an afterthought. So Helen Gee , who not herself a photographer,decided that this is what the art world needed. Helen was a woman of immense will as she was also raising her daughter alone.

She had fallen in love and married Mr. Gee a very promising painter who unfortunately was committed to an institution because of uncontrolled schizophrenia. Fortunately she had a skill much in demand at that time – namely retouching photographs and negatives for magazines. This was her seed money for Limelight

The Before
The After

Her networking skills were amazing as she was able to cajole some of what we think of the luminaries of Mid-Century Photography. Here is a list of exhibitions

LIMELIGHT EXHIBITION CHRONOLOGY 

1954 Joseph Breitenbach, Korea, May 13–June 27 Rudolph Burckhardt, June 29–August 15 Louis Stettner, August 17–September 27 Minor White, September 28–November 3 Grant La Farge, New England in the 1890s, November 6–30 Great Photographs: Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Édouard Boubat, Bill Brandt, Brassaï, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Harry Callahan, Imogen Cunningham, Robert Doisneau, Robert Frank, Izis, Lisette Model, Gotthard Schuh, W. Eugene Smith, Paul Strand, Jakob Tuggener, Sabine Weiss, Edward Weston, and Minor White, December 1–30 

1955 David Vestal, January 3–February 14 Arnold Newman, February 15–March 19 Eliot Porter, March 21–April 17 Alfred Stieglitz/ Dorothy Norman, Portraits of Each Other, April 19–May 7 Dan Weiner, Italy, May 10–June 7 Suzy Harris, June 10–July 25 Group show: Fourteen Photographers, July 28–September 2 Wynn Bullock, September 5–October 8 László Moholy-Nagy, October 11–November 19 Édouard Boubat, November 22–December 31 

1956 Leon Levinstein, New York, January 3–February 11 Ansel Adams, February 14–March 31 Esther Bubley, April 3–May 5 Imogen Cunningham, May 8–June 25 Sabine Weiss, June 28–July 29 Footlights and Spotlights: Theatrical Photographs of the American Stage, 1860–1900, loan exhibition from George Eastman House, August 1–September 19 Ken Heyman, September 21–October 28 Dan Weiner, South Africa, October 30–December 2 Eugène Atget, December 4–January 6 

1957 Izis, January 8–February 17 Frank Paulin, February 19–April 2 Eliot Porter/ Ellen Auerbach, Madonnas and Marketplaces, April 4–May 19 Elliott Erwitt, May 24–July 7 Morris H. Jaffe, July 9–August 18 Lyrical and Accurate, loan exhibition from George Eastman House, designed by Minor White, August 20–September 28 W. Eugene Smith, October 1–November 10 John Cohen, Peru, November 12–December 15 Berenice Abbott, Portraits of the Twenties, December 17–January 26 

1958 David [“ Chim”] Seymour, Chim’s Children, January 28–February 25 Rudolph Burckhardt/ George Montgomery, February 27–April 10 Ken Heyman, Bali, Japan, Hong Kong, April 12–May 25 Bert Stern, May 27–July 20 James Karales, Rendville, USA, July 24–August 31 Group show, September 3–30 Harold Feinstein, October 2–November 15 Gerda Peterich, Dance Portraits, November 18–December 31 

1959 Robert Doisneau, January 5–February 28 Harry Lapow, March 3–April 12 Dan Weiner, Russia and Eastern Europe, April 14–May 12 The History of Photography, loan exhibition from George Eastman House, May 15–June 30 Group show: Seven Europeans, July 2–August 13 Group show: Images of Love, August 15–September 30 Brassaï, The Eye of Paris, October 5–31 Group show, November 2–December 13 Louis Faurer, December 15–January 18 

1960 Photographs by Professors: Lou Block, Van Deren Coke, Allen Downs, Walter Rosenblum, Aaron Siskind, Henry Holmes Smith, and Minor White, January 19–February 29 Ralph Hattersley, March 1–27 Jerry Liebling, April 1–May 15 Edward Weston, May 17–June 26 Gordon Parks, June 28–August 7 Jack Smith, August 9–September 11 Group show, September 13–October 16 Claudia Andujar, October 18–November 8 Paul Caponigro/ Minor White, November 10–December 14 Julia Margaret Cameron, December 16–January 31, 

Exterior of Limelight

After a 6 year run, Limelight closed. A combination of difficulty finding and keeping staff combined with efforts to unionize her establishement forced her close to avoid bankruptcy.

Information for this article was gleaned from this book:

8/26/19. – new internet article

Inge Morath. (1923-2002)

She came of age during WWII in Germany. Escaping west to avoid the onslaught of Russians she eventually landed a job with the US forces as a writer. She was multi-lingual so she was a natural for this position.

“In fact to read Morath’s writing is to be reminded that writing and photographing are not so far apart: both depend on seeing; not just looking but noticing- discerning the patterns and revelations that are typically passed over and conventionalized.” – Linda Gordon

Needing a photographer for her stories she was introduced to Ernst Haas who was also a refugee of the war. As Haas’ reputation spread he was asked by Robert Capa to come to Paris to join Magnum – the first collective for photographers. Haas insisted that Inge also join Magnum though not as a photographer at first. This came several years later in 1955.

In 1953 Capa assigned Morath to Henri Cartier Bresson ( HCB) to act as mentor and intern. This was a two way street as Morath was looking to become a photographer in her own right and HCB needed someone to translate, write notes and captions.

One of the interesting facets of the photograph above is that it is a still from “The Misfits” . Directed by John Houston from a screenplay by Arthur Miller. It was an all star affair with Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Cliff, Clark Gable ( his last movie), Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter.

In the 1950s into the 60s it was a significant source of work for Magnum and Morath to go shoot movie stills. Inge had worked with John Huston before on Moulin Rouge , so it was no surprise that Henri Cartier Bresson and Morath were sent out to shoot this latest movie. They both drove from NY city to Reno Nevada. This road trip is the basis of one of Morath’s book “The Road to Reno” Apparently 18 photojournalists were invited but honestly I only know of Morath’s photos. This speaks to the strength of her abilities.

There is also the true story of how Morath saved the life of Audey Murphy, wartime hero when she kept him from drowning . He was in the John Huston movie, Unforgiven. Murphy was relaxing on a row boat and it tipped.  No one else jumped in so Inge did and saved the star from a most ignoble death.

In the 1950’s Morath globetrotter the world for various projects. She was especially fond of Spain but did extensive reportage in Iran. Linda Gordon, who’s book was used for this article does raise the issue that Morath knowingly participated in a British Petroleum photo campaign at the time they were implicated in the overthrow of the government in Iran. Gordon opined that Morath was adverse to confrontation and therefore completed the campaign.

Morath and Arthur Miller

After Miller and Monroe divorced, Morath and Miller found a kinship in each other. Often traveling together and then marrying. Their travels took them all over the world. They frequently collaborated on projects though sometimes the photos didn’t match the text and they seemed to be happy with this arrangement. This allowed each to explore the subject matter in their own way.

Much of the information for this article were gathered from these two books: