The American road trip is one of photo history and pop culture’s most celebrated tropes. Traversing stretches of the landscape by car, bike, or motorcycle, camera in hand—or perhaps a large format camera and a tripod to slow things down—conjures a sense of freedom, of escape, of youth, nostalgia, and self-empowerment. At its best, it helps us come of age and experience a broad cross-section of culture and politics, but it can also feel steeped in cliché.
Somewhere Along The Line, a new book of photographs by Joshua Dudley Greer, tweaks this tradition, making it current, thoughtful, and applicable to our charged political landscape. From 2011 to 2017, Greer traveled over 100,000 miles by car, taking pictures along the tangled superhighways that define much of the United States, using them as a metaphor for the complex, interconnected cultures and narratives that bring us together, fragment us, and define our often splintering American identities. Greer meanders from heart-heavy images like a couple stranded beside a burning car or a sinkhole in the middle of a block of chain stores, to quieter moments like a man charging up his Tesla in a parking lot—all with the highway hanging in the background, stitching it together. I recently spoke with Greer to talk photo history, clichés and what this all means for America. —Jon Feinstein
VICE: These are road trip photos, but you don't want them to be seen as "road trip photos."
Joshua Dudley Greer: I think there are times when "road trip" refers to the subject matter, and times when it refers to the working method. In the case of my project, it happens to be both. So I don’t have a problem with that label, but I don’t like some of its connotations. In particular, I have trouble with the sense that a road trip can easily become a kind of catch-all for anything and everything one finds along the way. Random, unrelated subjects aren’t magically given kinship by the trip alone; they have to relate in a deeper way.
VICE: As we hit road trip season, we’re about to get bombarded with recycled features on nearly every brand’s blog, Instagram account, and direct mail. I have a love-hate relationship with this kind of content, and from some of our early conversations, I get the sense that you might too. What's your favorite road trip cliché?
Greer: The classic shot of the open road has to be number one for me. There are the “good” versions of this picture: Dorothea Lange (The Road West, 1938), Robert Frank (U.S. 285, New Mexico, 1955), Stephen Shore (I-8, Yuma, Arizona, September 23, 1974), etc. And then there are the motivational posters and affirmational Instagram posts emblazoned with words like escape, adventure, and commitment.
VICE: Ha! Once it’s hit the dentist's office waiting room you know it’s over. You seem to be going deeper, though.
Greer: In my mind, the equation of the vanishing road with possibility and self-discovery is linked to a certain kind of freedom or privilege that many people in this country simply don’t have. But it’s also tied to a sense of nostalgia and romanticism that I don’t find very healthy. It’s one of the reasons I decided to focus on the Interstate Highway System and freeways and turnpikes—there’s not much romance there when compared to the back roads and scenic two-lane highways that once dominated our culture. I will say that no matter how clichéd things happen to be, there’s often a temptation to want to work with that material and make something that feels transformative—I’m certainly guilty of that many times over.
VICE: How does this work?
Greer: If the road has always been synonymous with progress, then I thought I could also use it to show how that progress has stalled or failed. I like riffing on clichés and trying to find my own voice in what is historically an overcrowded genre. I can understand how highways in the 20th century engendered feelings of excitement and anticipation, but now that we have over 4 million miles of roads in the US, I think it’s safe to say the honeymoon’s over. Car culture peaked long ago and it feels like most people don’t pay attention to these particular spaces anymore—they’re just too ubiquitous to feel special. And yet, I think photography offers us a platform to see these places in a way that can feel special, and that’s really what I tried to do.
VICE: Backing up a bit, how and why did this series start?
Greer: I did my first cross-country road trip when I was 19 years old, so the process of seeing America from the road has been with me for a long time. Though I never really made work about that, I think things changed for me in 2010. My partner and I moved to Tennessee for a teaching gig and as we were starting to build a life together, we had a sense that we weren’t exactly home. Our town was situated near the junction of two interstates and there was definitely a connection between the rootlessness we were feeling and the pull of the road. In 2011, we went on our first trip together and those countervailing ideas of home and escape became the catalyst for examining the highways in a long-form project.
VICE: What does the highway symbolize for you?
Greer: For me the highway can be seen as a physical manifestation of our nation’s character, whether that’s economic, political, social, or environmental. It can be a place of violence and austerity, of hope and comedy, but also of neglect and boredom. More than anything, I see it as a place of aspiration.
VICE: Building on that, in your statement, you mention the idea of the road as a stage.
Greer: By that I mean that the superhighway is largely place-less and spartan, so we can project any number of meanings or values onto it depending on how and when we choose to see it. Marc Augé called it a “non-place,” but it can gain a sense of place if and when something memorable happens within its boundaries. Whether that’s a fire or a protest or a message on a sign, those are the things that give the stage its characters—and ultimately, I hope, the highway its story.
VICE: I’m curious about the role people play in this work. They float in and out as pieces of the landscape. In some, they have the same conceptual, architectural, and emotional weight as the land, as automobiles, as fences. In others we want to know more about them individually.
Greer: The road can feel so impersonal and dehumanizing, and I wanted to convey those feelings but I actually needed people to be able to do that. Isolated figures appear often throughout the book and are usually dwarfed by the vastness of the surrounding landscape. But there are also moments of community and civic engagement. Collectively, I wanted to show how adaptable and resilient and surprising people can be. Many of them are seen from behind or have their identities concealed in some way—for me that spoke to the anonymity of the road, but also to how many people feel in a system that prioritizes capital over individual citizens.
VICE: The image of the two people sitting on the side of the highway with the car burning in the background: it’s heavy and symbolic. It’s an image I’ve seen other photographers make, yet it doesn’t feel redundant.
Greer: To me, this is such an American scene. The sumptuous beauty of destruction mixed with laid-back spectatorship. The figures look like something out of a Seurat painting, but instead of gazing out onto a river, we have the interstate. I also just love how the colors of the shirts echo the fire and the sky.
VICE: The book is a paced balance between quiet meditations and gut-gripping, almost loaded photographs. The highway accident photo or the sinkhole in West Virginia, balanced against quieter images like the car and animals in Page, Arizona, and some simpler, new topographics-y landscapes. It breathes.
Greer: That balance was really important to me as I edited the final sequence of the book. When I’m on a long trip, especially when I’m sticking to the interstates, there’s so much banality and quietude that there’s a kind of hypnotism and meditative quality to the experience of driving. But every so often, that lull will be punctuated with these brief moments of intensity so I wanted the book to have that same kind of feeling.
VICE: Is this work political?
Greer: Carl Fisher, the man who conceived of the Lincoln Highway, said “the highways of America are built chiefly of politics, whereas the proper material is crushed rock or concrete.” So yes, I think the work is inherently political because the decisions about where a highway gets built, how it’s maintained or who gets left in its wake, are all made by politicians. Beyond that though, I really wanted to make sure the work felt like it was situated in this particular moment. Divisions and walls and borders and boundaries are all constructs of our landscape, whether they’re physical or psychological. Income inequality, social injustice, technology—all these things find their way onto our roadways; we just have to look for them.
VICE: This work covered more than seven years. What signaled its time to become a book? Is the project over?
Greer: Yeah, I think it’s over, and I’m at peace with that. Making the book was a big part of feeling a sense of completion. I mean, I could probably make work like this for the rest of my life, but personally and professionally, that wouldn’t be practical. I am comfortable living on the road for brief periods and giving myself a respite from my typical routine. Joel Sternfeld once said that “art provides what our daily lives cannot,” and I feel that very sincerely when I’m traveling. So I’m sure I’ll be out there on the road again working in some way at some point. But after seven years, I found myself re-seeing the same pictures again and again, and the timing just felt right to try to see something new.
You can pre-order Joshua's book here.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.