A Photographer’s Notes on America At Work.
Traveling by Car
If you’ve been following along, either here or on either Instagram, maybe you’ve seen that I’m doing a project called America At Work, specifically for publication here on Medium. It’s not just a cool assignment, it’s sort of the Mecca journey of photography. Traveling by car across America’s vast countryside, getting away from the usual haunts and discovering the heart of the country through the lens of a rangefinder camera… what photographer hasn’t dreamed of it? It certainly has been a life-long dream of mine, ever since I first saw the work of Robert Frank.
It has been a distinct privilege to get to do it, but I discovered a few days into it that there’s two distinct parts to it: the needs of the project, but also my own journey. Two needs are being met — those which get the project done and those that help me on my own path. that second part has been a much-harder-to-describe part of the journey that still evolves even as I confront it in writing.
So, now that there’s 6,500 miles and 18 states in my rearview mirror (and a lot of logged thinking hours), here are some of the things I’ve found myself discovering about my own photography as I’ve wheeled around the country:
Weird vs Wild
As anyone who has driven across the United States will tell you, the large majority of it is plain and simple landscape.
This poses a problem for the photographer, as the slightest deviation within the monotonous landscapes feels special and wanting of attention. But having seen more than my share of gas stations, small town oddities and American Kitsch in photographs, I came to final terms with the kind of work that I want to create. And it wasn’t that.
The open road really confronts you with what appeals to you. And it became abundantly clear, after I got over the draw to shoot America’s weirdness, that what really gets me excited is the other direction. I simply find more beauty in normalcy than I do in oddity.
To me, this is the root of classicism — to find beauty not in what’s weird, but in the stripped and bare truth. Maybe even to such a degree that the normal thing suddenly and nakedly captured comes to stand for something timeless.
And in a time when magazine after magazine, feature after feature and post after post all want to spotlight the outlier, I’m just more interested and drawn toward the everyday. As fabulous as a floaty flamingo is, it is what it is — plastic. The real wings of life are with us in our fleshy normalcy.
Finding My Emotional Distance
Despite not finding much satisfaction in the American Oddity, I am enthralled by landmarks and those defining characteristics of the American landscape. The ones that seem unflappable.Through this trip, I’ve found myself, in my in between moments, overwhelmed with the idea of capturing the America landscape in a way that matches how I feel about the country.
When people ask me what kind of photography I do, I like to answer, “emotional landscapes.” It’s always been sort of a joke, but most jokes are a little true.
America is a thought — an emotion. And that emotion is something you feel more than put your finger on. My feeling traveling around is a lot about being overwhelmed. I feel small among the wide open spaces, towering mountains and architecture. But also small among the changes.
And I think that feeling of smallness is very human.
So, what I’ve learned is that my role as a photographer is not just to capture the subject, but to capture what I feel about it. And framing it is how I do that. Either up close or stepped back, it’s the same. How much of the frame does the object take up? What are the relationships of people to environment? As I move in and out, emotions are conveyed in different ways — there’s usually one spot where the frame feels the way I feel. And that is my role, to find that spot. That emotional distance from the subject, no matter what I’m shooting.