Photographers Alexander Shields and William Eckersley have meticulously documented U.S. Route 80, stretching from Savannah, Georgia to the Californian coast. The enchanting results have been collected in a new book published by Stucco Press and are
Photographers Alexander Shields and William Eckersley have meticulously documented U.S. Route 80, stretching from Savannah, Georgia to the Californian coast. The enchanting results have been collected in a new book published by Stucco Press and are currently on show at Cole Contemporary. Here, Jon Snow writes about the chequered history of the iconic Southern highway.
You only begin to understand America when you reach the South. U.S. Route 80, or the Dixie Overland Highway as it was once known, streams like a frayed ribbon across this region. It was the first coast-to-coast highway in America, pre-dating even the fabled Route 66, and runs from Savannah, Georgia to San Diego, California. Spanning nearly 3,000 miles, it covers eight states and an enormous diversity of landscape and culture. It sees the rural southlands, scarred by civil war and civil rights; boom towns of Texas enriched with oil surplus; creeping scarcity as scrubland gives way to the western deserts; and a conclusion in the promised land of the Golden State.
Historically the road’s most significant travellers have been the countless Americans from the east seeking a better life in the west. Inaugurated in 1926, its importance as a cross-country thoroughfare was quickly cemented by the dustbowl migration of the 1930s, which saw 1,000s displaced from the Great Plains, nearly all heading to California. However, this westward movement is as old as the continent itself, and has continued from the Depression up to the present day. It is an integral part of the mythology of America, within which U.S.80 deserves iconic status.
In more recent times, the old highway has been superseded by interstates, and large segments have fallen by the wayside of an improved network. For half its length, the Mexican border is a parallel running mate, with the road a first stop for new immigrants. Increased focus on immigration as well as a drug war of unprecedented scale has now drawn attention to forgotten towns that line the border. With drugs smuggled north and guns back south, once again cruel economic realities have breathed life into arteries sprawling the great American continent.
Not that U.S.80 is unfamiliar with crime. Tales of lawlessness pervade the area’s collective psyche – from the Gunfight at the OK Corral to Bonnie and Clyde’s death at Gibsland, Louisiana. Even more notoriously, the road’s business spur in Dallas will forever be enshrined in memory as the site of JFK’s assassination. Of course, such events merely echo the often turbulent and violent history of American herself, and should be put in context with the heroes, invention and culture that have found root in these lush pastures. Richness can not only be tasted in the variety of cuisine, be it Cajun, Tex-Mex or BBQ, but also heard in the blues and soul music on local radio stations. These surroundings set the stage for the quintessential road movies Easy Rider and Paris, Texas as well as the backdrop for a huge wealth of inspiring literature, from the works of Mark Twain to Cormac McCarthy.
U.S.80 spans a land of contrasts, that over the course of three visits between 2008 and 2009, Shields and Eckersley traversed numerous times. Drawing inspiration from the wealth of photography, film and literature that comprises the American travelogue genre, they have meticulously documented the highway and its environs. The following collection of photographs is a distillation of 100s of medium and large format images, that merely hint at what has been before and what is still unresolved – poverty, race, wealth, production, emptiness, hope and despair.
It is the light that somehow defines the South. It is immediate, uninterrupted and full of purple shadow at either end of the day. Illuminating the extraordinary landscape of this region, it is captured with poignancy in these photographs.
Text by Jon Snow
U.S. 80 Exotic Country runs until 13 November at Cole Contemporary.