David Campany is a writer, curator and artist. He is the past recipient of the ICP Infinity Award, the Krazna-Krauss Book Award, and the Royal Photographic Society’s award for writing and teaches at the University of Westminster, London. Previous books include Art and Photography (2003), Photography and Cinema (2008), Jeff Wall: Picture for Women (2010), Gasoline (2013) Walker Evans: the magazine work (2014). Here, he speaks about his book The Open Road: Photography & the American Road Trip and The Open Road Aperture Benefit Party that takes place tonight in New York City based around the book and a tribute to Robert Frank.
Q: The Open Road: Photography & the American Road Trip is the first book to explore the photographic road trip as a genre. What inspired you to bring the various photographers together in this book? Why do you think it’s important to examine this genre closely and why now?
A: I began the book knowing that quite a lot of the very best photography made in America over the last century has been made on the road. So rather thinking about road trips and then looking for projects, I came at it the other way: wondering why the road trip has been so central to American photography.
Why now? That’s what I wondered when my publisher Aperture invited me to put this book together. I was amazed that it hadn’t really been done before. But now is a very good time because photography finally has a mature and curious attitude to its own past. It’s fascinating to see younger photographers responding to and developing challenges that were faced sixty, eighty, ninety years ago. The other arts have had that disposition for a long time but it’s surprisingly recent in photography. So The Open Road brings together three or four generations, in conversation with each other. And through this you can really grasp the continuities and the changes in America and its pictures.
Q: Each chapter explores a different photographer’s work including Joel Meyerowitz and Robert Frank. How were the photographers and images curated and chosen to be in this book? As a curator, do you have a specific approach or rules you use?
A: The aim was actually to avoid assembling a who’s who. I felt it should be a what’s what, led by great images rather than great names. In all my books I try to be guided by the photographs, first and foremost. Beyond this, I was interested in showing the range. The genre, if road trip photography really is a genre, includes everything from visual poetry and joy rides, to self-discoveries and political polemics. There are no rules.
Q: Did you learn anything during that process that surprised you or that you particularly liked? Or are there any interesting tidbits or a little known fact that you discovered about the photographs and/or photographers while writing this book that our readers may find interesting?
A: Well, I had one suspicion confirmed and that was the influence of Walker Evans on just about every photographer in the book. Evans never made a specifically photographic road trip but the car was crucial to his work as he explored America’s small towns and idiosyncrasies in the 1930s. And his book American Photographs (1938) really opened up the idea that a traveling photographer might be able to shoot and sequence pictures as a response to the nation as a whole. You can see Evans’ sensibility in so many subsequent projects: Robert Frank’s The Americans, Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces, Jacob Holdt’s American Pictures, Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects, Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture. And photographers like Justine Kurland have really deepened and extended Evans’s idiom. Evans is the quiet giant.
Q: As a non-American yourself, why do you think the American open road is such an attraction for American and foreign photographers alike?
A: The myth of space and the space of myth.
Q: Have you ever taken an American road trip? If so, can you tell us a bit about your experience? If not, has the process of writing for this book inspired you to take one in the future?
A: Yes I have. I think the most fun road trip I took was in 1999 with a good friend. It was very much a photographic trip. It confirmed our fascination, our horror, our sense of possibility, of the sublime and the banal. And forced us to confront the clichés in our heads and the clichés out there. I think that’s why most photographers go on the road.
Q: Aperture Foundation has created this upcoming benefit party based around The Open Road book and as a tribute to Robert Frank. Can you tell us what you’re looking forward to most about the benefit and about how your relationship with Aperture came to be?
A: It’ll be a great night. The musician Billy Bragg is playing. Like me he’s from Essex, England. Unlike me he’s been writing songs on a road trip with the photographer Alec Soth. The Kills are playing too. And I feel honored to have been invited to say a few words about Robert Frank. That’s quite a challenge because so much has been said already. But if I follow Frank’s own worldview – be honest and avoid everything phony – I’ll be OK. His work is important to a lot of people, but I doubt it means exactly the same thing for any two of them. I’ll talk about what it means to me and hope it resonates. Who knows, Robert himself may even show up.
My relationship with Aperture goes back quite a way. The day I graduated I was offered an internship with them, but I wasn’t able to take it up. For years it seemed Aperture would be the path not taken. Then about eight years ago they asked if I would write for a book of John Divola’s photographs. Since then I’ve contributed to a few books and I often write for their magazine.
Q: As a writer, what draws you to covering the subject of photography? How do you go about interpreting a photographer’s work for the reader? In your bio, it also mentions that you’re an artist – what medium do you like to work with?
A: That’s a profoundly difficult question for me. I think about it a lot. Could you ask me again in about thirty years? I do know that I couldn’t write about photography if I didn’t make photographs myself. I exhibit that work occasionally, or publish it, but it doesn’t burn in me to be a recognized photographer and that’s very freeing. If I can be with photography, that’s enough. Writing, photographing, curating shows, editing, teaching.
Q: The introduction you wrote for the book, “traces the rise of road culture in America and considers photographers on the move across the country and across the century, from the early 1900s to present day.” Photography and America have both changed drastically in that span of time. What changes stood out to you and was there a common thread among the different works and different time periods besides the inherent theme of the book?
A: ‘Motoring’ and the ‘road trip’ were marketed as consumerist experiences almost from the beginning of the automobile. What’s striking is that nearly all the really great road trip photography, at least from the 1920s onwards, is actually quite critical of American consumerist culture and materialism. Sometimes explicitly, sometime implicitly, but it’s always there. It’s as if the criticality and the great artistry, the disappointment and the hope, inform each other. I think that’s a particularly North American phenomenon. It has everything to do with the fact that the country is the great social experiment, and as such it needs monitoring. Artists do that monitoring, and they often do it best when they are simply expressing their feelings about what they see.
Q: Do you think that the American road trip will continue to be a popular theme in photography in the next century? If so, how will it be different from the work of the previous century as covered in this book?
A: I can’t make predictions. The other day I was listening to a catchy song from the early 1990s by Donald Fagen called Trans Island Skyway. It’s about a road trip in the near future. His car is steam-powered. There’s a hydroponic farm in the back that provides fresh food all year. It can drive itself when necessary. And there’s always something to discover. That’s one version of the future. The other might be that we do it all via Google Street View. But actually Google Street View isn’t all that new. I begin The Open Road with a discussion of an extraordinary series of books from the 1900s. They were visual aids for intrepid long-distance drivers, each featuring hundreds of photos of every junction between major cities, and in reverse shot for coming back!
Q: The book starts off with the question “Is America even imaginable without the road trip?” Without giving too much from the book away, what’s your answer to this question and why?
A: Hmmm. My answer would be ‘yes and no’. It’s a rhetorical question that sets the book in motion. I can’t tell you anything more. A boy’s gotta have some secrets.
Thank you for your time, David!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with David on his website. Learn more about Aperture Foundation on their website, Facebook and Twitter. Participate in the Aperture Foundation Benefit Auction 2014 online here and learn more about the benefit.