Jessica Lange’s Photographs Capture Life and Loneliness on Highway 61

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Highway 61 - 65
New Orleans, from Highway 61© Jessica Lange

The actor’s new monograph is a study of Highway 61, a route that runs the length of the American Midwest, from Lange’s home state of Minnesota down to New Orleans

At the age of 18, Jessica Lange boarded a Greyhound Bus outside the Tulip Shop in her hometown of Cloquet, Minnesota, and headed south down Highway 61 on her way to Europe and beyond. The year was 1967, and the winds of change were in the air. A new America taking shape, as fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan foresaw on his seminal 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited, the very first album Lange ever bought.

For Lange, the historic 2,575 kilometre interstate highway that runs from the Canadian border down to New Orleans, is a plumb line through her life – a marker of where she has been, who she was, and who she has become, as well as a testament to the changes that have shaped the United States over the past 70 years.

In the new monograph, Highway 61, Lange takes us along for a ride, creating a timeless portrait of America that evokes the work of Robert Frank. A quiet, careful observation of the human condition, Lange’s photographs reveal a sense of solidarity among the working class, recognising that they built this country from the ground up. She visits motels, roadside fruit stands, local bars, vintage diners, amusement parks, farms, private homes, markets, and sometimes just walks the streets as one of the people, rather than Hollywood royalty. 

Lange easily immerses herself in the milieu, people gladly posing for a photograph. Yet there is a melancholy that pervades the work, a quiet longing for connection that underscores the artist’s simple dedication at the beginning of the book. “For Sam,” Lange writes to her husband, Sam Shepard, who died in 2017. It’s a moment of devotion that finds its way into every image she makes, infusing her photographs with a powerful sense of love, hope, and faith.

In her afterword, Lange quotes blues musician Roosevelt Sykes’ lyrics: “Lord, it wrecked my heart / to think about Highway 61 / I felt so blue, Lord, while I was out on that lonely highway...” 

Then she writes: “I felt that loneliness as a child and I feel it even more acutely now. Long stretches of 61 are empty, forlorn, as if in mourning for what has gone missing – the hometowns, the neighbourhoods, family farms, factories, and mills... Some [people] remain, perhaps yearning for that more vibrant past but reluctant to abandon the place they call home.” Lange, quite simply, seems at peace when she is among her own.

Jessica Lange: Highway 61 is published by Powerhouse Books. An exhibition of the same name will be at Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York from November 21, 2019 – January 18, 2020.