I used to think of photography in terms of illustration, and my time as a design student solidified that notion. Images were secondary to text, which was intended to entice a person to favor a product, idea, or story. But when I enrolled in the graduate program at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1965, under photographer Harry Callahan, I was surrounded by people who saw photographs as extensions of their inner, thinking selves. Trying to catch up, I used different approaches and explored a variety of subjects: streets, buildings, some portraits. I even took pictures for the yearbook.
Towards the end of the fall of 1965, I met Walker Evans. I had no idea who he was or anything about his work. But his book American photographs completely changed the way I think about photography. The images were descriptive, written and distinct. They could be read slowly; information was contained in every square centimeter. They were intense but not dramatic. Rigorous in their elaboration, they demanded careful consideration. It was clear that I had a model for my education through a classic method: first imitate, then rent the space and finally own the process, until taking pictures was no longer a re-enactment.
I started traveling as soon as I could. I went to new and unfamiliar places, looking for topics that felt familiar. I was learning, discovering what was me and what was someone else.
After graduating, I bought a bigger camera, which gave me more freedom to use the full range of mechanisms to adjust perspective and focus. I started accumulating different lenses, coming to realize that I could achieve a kind of respectful middle ground, neither too close to eliminate context nor too far away to complicate with an excess of information. Carefully done, the framing of the image brought what was in front of the camera to life, and over time I was no longer replicating anyone.
My interest in photography has never been driven by the assumption that the present is somehow damaged good and the past a more honest ideal. Nor is it about assuming my superiority on the subject by employing some form of “nudge, wink” irony. I have always done photography that is simple, clean and very slow. Although I don’t photograph people, I constantly interact with them. Conversations can be lengthy, exhibits often take minutes, and getting permission and set-up also takes time. The reflection on the image itself changes frequently during the process, even when the shutter is open. A car can stop and park, a person cross and sit down, light can change which can potentially add to or detract from the final image.
These photos were taken during numerous trips to the United States between 1967 and 1977, a 10-year period not quite aligned with the oft-maligned 1970s, but close enough. Beginning with the later unfulfilled hope spawned by the Civil Rights Movement and Great Society legislation, the period was characterized by stagflation and gas pipes. Jimmy Carter’s presidency preceded the terrible 80s of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, “Just Say No”, the beginning of the end of Pax Americana and, in due course, the burgeoning self-involvement of Boomers.
During that decade, I earned a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship and worked for the Seagram Corporation Bicentennial Project photographing courthouses. I’ve criss-crossed the country six times in two different cars and a van and made countless short east-west and north-south trips.
From the start, my plan was to travel on the numbered highways in the United States and across the states, only using the highways when unavoidable. The result was an encyclopedic roll call of a number of routes: US 2, 6, 11, 20, 41, 51, 61, 62, 80, 90, 99 (old), 119 and 301 are favorites. Some run north to south, some run east to west, and a few run diagonally. Many of them follow ancient Native American trails or 19th-century railroad tracks, often meandering and rambling, dictated by bends in rivers, mountain ranges, politics, even serendipity.
At last count, I’ve traveled all or part of US 11 more than 10 times in half a century. The old two-lane, three-lane, sometimes four-lane highway proved a godsend. In medium and small towns, the road itself is a main street with no bypass or alternative. It is a horizontal open pit mine that sometimes stretches for a mile or two. I took over 60 different photos along or beside the right of way. Among the subjects are six minor league baseball parks and five drive-ins. There are restaurants that serve breakfast, barbecues, pizzas and hot dogs. There are signs for coffee, Dr Pepper, parking, motels, burger joints, and political candidates. There’s the Big Pencil, an arrow in the front of a stationery store. There are groceries, beer and juke joints, an old guitar shop and abandoned gas stations. There are windows for a beauty salon, shoe repair shop, dance studio and lunch room. And there’s a pawn shop, a sno-ball stand, and a taco truck. Roads like these have been a rich and continuous source of imagery, but the most fruitful has been US 11.
I have never traveled to the United States to find myself. I went looking for people, places and things that I didn’t know. Leaving familiar boundaries is an outward-oriented process best done by driving on old two- or three-lane roads, stopping, watching, and listening every step of the way.
This is an edited excerpt from “Signs: Photographs by Jim Dow” published by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. An exhibition of the same name runs at the museum until October 9
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