Fotograf Magazine

Across America at the Speed of a Camera Shutter Release

‘You Press the Button, We Do the Rest’ is a sentence that, according to David Campany, is most likely responsible for starting the story of travel photography – and not just in America. George Eastman of Kodak fame used it for the company’s campaign in 1888 to attract people to amateur photography. The Open Road is the first publication – in a series of many by the New York-based Aperture Foundation, specialising in photography – to focus on road trip photography and records in the form of an eclectic chronicle of the genre’s development over an entire century. The first milestone in the publication’s selection of portfolios is Robert Frank’s The Americans, which leads an imaginary dialogue in picture form with Dean Moriarty, the character from Jack Kerouac’s 1957 book On the Road, embodying the urge to hit the road without any definite end or gain. The works of seventeen other photographers, presented in chronological order, offer disparate perceptions and moods, starting with Ed Ruscha and William Eggleston, including Jacob Holdt and Stephen Shore, and ending with Ryan McGinley and Justine Kurland, all commenting on the landscape of American culture, including the bizarre as much as the beautiful, and also looking at the impact of the automobile industry and consumerism on the state of society. Where is this photography genre headed? Is it starting to move faster? Or is it more contemplative and in a state of inertia?

 The introductory text by David Campany, a British curator and writer, brings into the history of American photography a number of key hinging connections that clarify why the road trip is such a crucial phenomenon in American culture. The ‘road trip’ is a myth that feeds the hunger for knowledge and, above all, self-knowledge. Nevertheless, myths fascinate people and the publication provides room for reflection through the subjective, hypersensitive perception of the featured artists, who have captured America through its characteristic iconography, including inherent clichés and banalities. Each conveyed viewpoint exposes the role of photography in shaping the perception of this expansive continent. Campany simultaneously shows how America creates its own image. In the latter half of the fifties, the country was criss-crossed with a ribbon of asphalt and concrete, and travelling by car was democratised, standardised and homogenised.

 The moment of pressing the shutter release is a pause, a punctuation mark amid perpetual driving through. Photographing moments and subjects that are remotely familiar is a way of dealing with the experience. The Open Road is the starting point rather than the destination in the search for the meaning of humankind’s movement forward within a larger existentialist context, and the selected photographs are a portrait of a continent that is determining its direction at high velocity.

Adéla Janíčková