Photo: “U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21, 1973,” Stephen Shore. © Stephen Shore, courtesy of the artist and 303 Gallery, New York.
With 1957 publication of Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, the road trip has become a quintessential part of American identity and culture. The book presupposes the belief that life is a search for meaning, one that we can potentially discover if we choose to follow our own individual paths. Like “the pursuit of happiness,” this credo has been deeply embraced in both figurative and literal ways.
This faith may be more deeply rooted in the nineteenth century of manifest destiny. The twin engines of American exceptionalism and Romantic nationalism combined to create the belief that the continent existed for Americans to remake in their own image, as decreed by “Divine Providence.”
“Outside Memphis, Tennessee,” Inge Morath, 1960. © Inge Morath/Magnum Photos
And so it is for many Americans the road trip has become a rite of passage that they feel a destined to partake, one that may inherently be virtuous in nature, for desire is a powerful force in shaping the will. Road trips have become metaphors and myths that anyone with an automobile can execute in their everyday reality. They have become synonymous with exploration, adventure, and discovery, as well as the freedom and possibility.
In celebration, the Detroit Institute of Arts presents The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip, on view now through September 11, 2016. Featuring more than 70 photographs by 19 artists, the exhibition begins with Robert Frank’s landmark photographs from his 1955 book The Americans. The exhibition moves forward in time, including the work of artists such as Ed Ruscha, whose trips between Los Angeles and Oklahoma formed the basis of his series, “Twentysix Gasoline Stations.”
“Phillips 66, Flagstaff, Arizona,” Ed Ruscha, 1962. © Ed Ruscha, courtesy of the artist
The Open Road also features the work of Garry Winogrand, Inge Morath, Joel Sternfeld, Alex Soth, Stephen Shore, and Ryan McGinley, among others. Taken as a whole, we see an America that many hold sacred to their hearts, a world where Nature submits to the dominance of wo/man. Here, a romantic spirit pervades as it highlights the nature of twentieth century progress. Highways, roads, cars, buses, motels, campsites, diners, gas stations, signage, and everyday people are the subject of commemoration, even veneration of a form.
In The Open Road we can enjoy the pervasive myth of the American frontier and connect with the way in which it continues to form our identity as a nation in the new millennium. Kerouac understood the vitality of this as a path to something greater than our selves, writing, ““The road must eventually lead to the whole world.”
“Florida, 1970,” Joel Meyerowitz. © Joel Meyerowitz, courtesy of the artist and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.
This is an act of faith that we may test, should we so wish.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.