A new exhibition in California celebrates the ways in which 20th-century photographers have expanded and reshaped the image of life on the road
In 1957, Jack Kerouac published his groundbreaking novel On the Road, bringing a bohemian twist to America’s love affair with the open road. “I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility,” Kerouac wrote, his words evoking the deeply entrenched call for independence, freedom, and self-determination that form the hallmarks of American identity.
The automobile was invented in 1885, right in the middle of the ‘Wild West’, a mythic era when rugged individuals cast their fortune on the frontier. They forged their own paths through unknown terrain, shaping the nation through a network of new roads and settlements that set the blueprint for land west of the Mississippi River. By the turn of the 20th century, the frontier had closed and in its place, car culture emerged. With their engine capacity to measure in literal units of “horsepower”, cars symbolised the modernist triumph of the machine over the nation’s agrarian past.
Following World War II, suburbs spread weed-like across the country, making the car a requirement for those who abandoned the grit of city life in favour of cookie-cutter houses and manicured lawns. During the postwar economic boom, youth culture emerged as a major force with cars taking centre stage in their lives. With time and money to burn, teens transformed cars into vehicles for rebellion, personal expression and self-discovery.
“It goes back to when we first got our driver’s licence, and I don’t think that [feeling] really ever changes. When you get in the car, it’s an escape and an adventure. It’s freedom,” says gallerist Joseph Bellows, who has curated the new online exhibition Along the Road at his eponymous gallery in California’s La Jolla.
Bringing together the work of 30 photographers including Anthony Friedkin, Baldwin Lee, John Humble, George Tice and Wayne Sorce, Along the Road celebrates the ways in which photographers working in the second half of the 20th century have expanded and reshaped the image of life on the road. Whether approaching the road as symbol, story or stage, the artists featured in the show have taken to the road as their urban contemporaries took to the street, exploring the lifeblood of the American experience.
Pointing to Mark Steinmetz’s serene scene of a teen couple in 1985 – the boy at the wheel and the girl dreamily gazing out of the window of an Oldsmobile Cutlass – Bellows says, “When you’re young, it’s a chance to get away from your parents and out of the house, and start your own adventure. During this period, cars were the only way we could experience being somewhere else.” It’s a sentiment that applies to photography in equal part. In 1958, just one year after On the Road was released, Robert Frank published The Americans, offering a modern, photographic update of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and inspiring generations of artists, like exhibiting photographer Sage Sohier, to do the same.
Seeing the photographing road trip as a rite of passage, Sohier embarked on Americans Seen in 1979, creating a series of environmental portraits made over a period of seven years. Adopting a collaborative approach, Sohier used photography as a way to connect with people she encountered and enter their world, transforming the photograph into a shared experience.
With Along the Road, Bellows masterfully blends an expansive array of genres and styles across the medium, exploring the multifaceted ways the photograph can act as artwork, artefact and evidence of our cultural obsessions. With the passage of time, the images become increasingly resonant. “It’s nostalgia, isn’t it?” says Bellows, looking back at the era of muscle cars, which defined the 1960s and 1970s, when many of these works were made. “It was a real car culture. We didn’t have the internet or any other forms of entertainment that would keep us home. The only way to experience life was to go out and find it.”
Along the Road is now on view online at Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, California.