04 April 2009

New Mexico Highways

The Road West, 1938. Photograph © Dorothea Lange.*


US 285, New Mexico, 1955. Photograph © Robert Frank.

Update (19 April 09) ~ I thought that I was being pretty clever and insightful in comparing these two images. Of course, I managed to forget that Geoff Dyer does just that in his book The Ongoing Moment [1] [2] where he writes: "Lange's picture is about distance, remoteness; Frank's is about covering ground. What was a symbol of the harsh reality of economic necessity is here the begetter of artistic possibilities and imminent encounters. Just what these encounters will be is anybody's guess. There is no telling, as we turn the pages of The Americans, where this road might lead. Lange documented a desperate search for work; here the search is not for work but for works of art, for images. The subject of the photograph has become the photographer's own vision and journey." The focus, in other words, is less on the world and its hardships, more on the self and its more or less indulgent fashioning.

Earlier, discussing Lange's photograph, Dyer explicitly, quite plausibly invokes Steinbeck's Tom Joad. That imagery, to my mind, heightens the contrast with the uncertainty and indeterminacy he reads in Frank's photograph. As Bruce Springsteen sings in the chorus to 'The Ghost of Tom Joad' - "The highway is alive tonight . . ." and then, by turns, ". . . But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes" or ". . . But where it's headed everybody knows." For the migrants, the internally displaced, there is no adventure, no thrill of anticipation. Everybody knows. And such a world invites the cynicism Leonard Cohen voices as often as it does the courage and commitment Springsteen invokes. It seems so, at least, for those more preoccupied with self-fashioning than with political realities and possibilities. So, in a sense, Lange and Frank seem to foreshadow the choice we face today.
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* U.S. 54 in southern New Mexico.

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04 April, 2009 10:58  

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