Road Trip as a Photographic Genre

Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash

The next several articles will be about “The Road Trip” as a legitimate genre in Photography.

The ‘Road Trip’ is such a quintessential part of the American psyche. I am admittedly ignorant of things European but I don’t think that they lust after the same thing on their continent. Perhaps because they have such great train service no one thinks of the trans-europe experience as such a big deal. Not so in America. This is huge country explored but not settled until the 20th century. The advent of the automobile primarily helped this expansion west. Before World War II the road trip was not glamorous – Think ‘Grapes of Wrath’ depression era travel. After the war with the completion of the American Highway system and later the Interstate, the travel was easier and became an adventurous pursuit. 

The question, “Are you up for a road trip?” has always been answered YES! In the early 60’s we had the TV show, Route 66 which was the epitome of the American Road Trip . So it would come as no surprise that a distinct, photographic genre arose out of this lust for the open road. What follows are but a few examples of photobooks relating to the road trip. Some are not so much about the trip but rather things that are seen on road trips.

So it is with no surprise that many established and no so established photographers have made it a rite of passage to engage in this genre.

The Russian Journal – Robert Capa with John Steinbeck

The Road to Reno – Inge Morath

The Americans – Robert Frank

ILF and Petrov’s American Road Trip

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.

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.”