Blanton Photography Exhibit Explores the Mythology of the American Road Trip
By Marisa Charpentier
“‘Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ‘till we get there.’
‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.’”
So reads the exchange between Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, the ragtag protagonists of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Their brief conversation encapsulates the mystifying draw of the American road trip: the desire to hop in a car and get out of town. For Dean and Sal, as for many who have heard the call of the open road, it didn’t matter where they were going — just that they went.
The American road trip has been eternalized in books like Kerouac’s novel, in movies like Easy Rider, and in songs like Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” It’s an experience that grew in popularity following World War II with the creation of the Interstate Highway System and the rise of the automobile. In The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip, the newest photography exhibit on view at the Blanton Museum of Art, America is put on display, in all her glory and strangeness. “You get this wide overview of not just the way road trip photography has blossomed as a genre,” says show curator Claire Howard, MA ’12, “but also the story of the changes in American culture that happened over this period of time.”
Spanning from the 1950s to 2014, the exhibit features 19 artists, beginning with the work of photographer Robert Frank. On his road trip from 1955 to 1956, he captured moments highlighting race and class differences across the country. Then in 1960, Magnum photographer Inge Morath took off with her camera and typewriter and traveled from New York to Reno, Nevada, to photograph the making of the film The Misfits. Her road trip formed the basis of her book The Road to Reno. “This is the story of my first trip across the United States,” she began her diary. “It is not really a story, they are bits of notes written each night at a table in a motel room that always was a different place and always looked the same.” On her journey, she photographed hitchhikers and aspects of American culture she struggled to understand, like the Native American villages off the side of the road in North Carolina that had become tourist destinations.
“In 1960, it was less common to have your work exhibited in a gallery, so I doubt that she had thoughts that someday this would be,” says American studies professor Steve Hoelscher. “It was her own personal project. I think that’s important to remember.”
Through the decades, the photos in the exhibit become more humorous and ironic, like Joe Sternfeld’s “Glen Canyon Dam, Page, Arizona,” taken in 1983. The photo, featuring a family with young boys peering over a dam, would look like a typical moment of tourism — except for the fact that there’s a baby sitting unattended in a playpen off to the left. Then comes the tongue-in-cheek work of photographers Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, who played with the hard-worn motifs of road trip photography on their journey in the early 2000s. They brought with them a collapsable strip of road, which they photographed in front of a mountain range, satirizing the popular image of a road that appears to go on forever.
Though often tied to adventure and fun, the concept of the road trip has historically been an exclusive one, and this exhibit shows that, too. It incorporates a copy of The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, on loan from the Briscoe Center. Published from 1936 through the mid-1960s, the publication served as a travel guide for black motorists trying to chart a safe route across the country during the Jim Crow era. “There is a myth of the road trip being spontaneous and representing freedom, but these mythologies often exclude perspectives like those of African-Americans who really had to sit down and map out their route and say, ‘Okay, where are we stopping this night? What hotels in that town are friendly to African-Americans?’” Howard says.
The exhibit also features the work of Eli Reed, Magnum photographer and clinical journalism professor at UT, whose 1997 book Black in America highlights the black experience across the nation from the 1970s to the 1990s, capturing moments of joy and sorrow.
“It’s a show that reexamines the mythology of the road trip,” Howard says. “It provides an opportunity to think about America as a whole and also as a country made up of so many different parts. That’s something these photographers showcase. There is not just one way of being an American.”