In the 1930s and early 1940s, a small group of immensely talented photographers, working for the federal government's Farm Security Administration [FSA], invented the visual language of the great American road trip.
Dorothea Lange: Between Tulare and Fresno on U.S. 99. Farmer from Independence, Kansas, on the road at cotton chopping time. He and his family have been in California for six months. May, 1939. (All photos are from the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection at the Library of Congress. Click directly on any of these photos to see larger versions.)
"...invented the visual language of the great American road trip." That's a pretty bold claim, given that road trips have been a part of American culture for a very long time. It's probably too much of a stretch to call Lewis and Clark's two-year expedition to the Pacific coast and back (1804-1806) a road trip, but Mark Twain's Roughing It (1872), a rollicking account of his travels and adventures on the western frontier, California, and Hawaii, certainly qualifies.
Dorothea Lange: On U.S. 99. in Kern County on the Tehachapi Ridge. Migrants travel seasonally back and forth between Imperial Valley and the San Joaquin Valley over this ridge. February, 1939.
Twain was a writer, not a photographer, however. He was responsible for many impressive things; creating a visual vocabulary wasn't one of them. The photographers who did go west in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--Carlton Watkins and Alexander Gardner, among many others--didn't make the road their subject. The FSA photographers very often did. (Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, John Vachon, and Carl Mydans are those whose work is shown here.) They also traveled by car. Motor vehicles, especially cars, are essential ingredients of the modern version of the classic American road trip.
Dorothea Lange: Billboard on U.S. Highway 99 in California. National advertising campaign sponsored by National Association of Manufacturers. March, 1937.
The nation was in the midst of the Great Depression when Roy Stryker assembled his team of photographers, first as part of the Resettlement Administration [RA] and then within the FSA. (Following the outbreak of World War II, the group was later transferred to the Office of War Information.) Stryker's goal was to create a photographic record of the suffering that the Depression had caused and the succor that the RA and FSA had brought. So, his photographers--as able and strong willed a group as can be imagined--took to the road. They gave Stryker what he wanted, but their photos reflect their own sensibilities as well.
Dorothea Lange: Mississippi Delta, on Mississippi Highway No. 1 between Greenville and Clarksdale. Negro laborer's family being moved from Arkansas to Mississippi by white tenant. June, 1938.
Most of the photos that the FSA photographers produced did indeed record suffering and injustice. This was a necessary part of their mission. Many urban and suburban voters had no real idea of what conditions in the countryside looked like. It was an era before television, but it was the dawn of the age of the great photo magazines, such a Life and Look. The FSA fed the nearly insatiable hunger of magazines and newspapers for images, and, in doing so, built support for RA and FSA programs.
Photos such as the ones above powerfully shaped Americans' ideas about the look of the Depression. The impact of these images could be seen, at the time, in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, the movie made from John Steinbeck's best-selling novel. (Their enduring influence on visual culture can be seen in The Beverly Hillbillies, both the 1960s TV show and the 1993 movie.)
Carl Mydans: Scenes at the auto trailer camp, Dennis Port, Massachusetts. August, 1936. (Click directly on any image to see a larger version.)
Even in the midst of the depression, most people still had jobs and millions remained middle class. The FSA photographers knew it and made many photos that show life among those lucky enough to have jobs going on more or less as it always had.
Marion Post Wolcott: Guests of Sarasota trailer park, Sarasota, Florida, picnicking at the beach. January, 1941.
These often ironic images of middle-class recreation have had as long a shelf-life as the photos of the poor and unemployed. Think, for instance, of Bill Owens' book Leisure.
Dorothea Lange: Santa Fe, New Mexico. Gas station price analysis. August, 1938.
The road trip check-list that the FSA photographers created (and that contemporary photographers continue to consult) includes much more the suffering of the dispossessed and the foibles of the middle-class. A road trip needs, for instance, picturesque gas stations.
Russell Lee: Man in hamburger stand, Alpine, Texas. May, 1938.
And hamburger joints, complete with local color and local characters. (I don't mean to dismiss these photos. They're quite wonderful. It's not at all coincidental that, here, Lee anticipates Robert Frank.)
A road trip also needs curiosities and roadside attractions, as in the next three photos.
Russell Lee (doing a terrific Walker Evans impersonation): Secondhand tires displayed for sale. San Marcos, Texas. March, 1940.
John Vachon: Paul Bunyan at used car lot, Bemidji, Minnesota. September, 1939.
Marion Post Wolcott: Cabins imitating the Indian teepee for tourists along highway south of Bardstown, Kentucky. July, 1940.
Walker Evans: Auto dump near Easton, Pennsylvania. November 1935.
The great American road trip is meant to be fun. But Evans reminds us where our obsession with the automobile is likely to lead.
Dorothea Lange: The highway going West. U.S. 80 near Lordsburg, New Mexico. June, 1938.
I'll end with an iconic image. This photo is by Dorothea Lange, but just about every FSA photographer made one just like it. As has every photographer who has followed them west, including, famously, Robert Frank.
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I'm far from the first person to connect the FSA photographers to the great American road trip. I'll let Luc Sante have the last word. In his essay, "Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac," he writes that it was the "poetically adventurous" FSA photographers "who established an enduring model for their profession...."
PS The painter and muralist Ben Shahn, who had a brief, brilliant career as an FSA photographer, made photos on road trips through the South which anticipate--in surprising and striking ways--the images that Frank made on the road in the 1950s. I'll say much more about Shahn's work in an upcoming post.