8 Seminal Road Trip Photo Books

February 18, 2020

The road trip is an enduring symbol in American culture. The open road has represented a sense of possibility and freedom, discovery and escape—a place to get lost and find yourself in the process. As Stephen Shore has written, "Our country is made for long trips. Since the 1940s, the dream of the road trip, and the sense of possibility and freedom that it represents, has taken its own important place within our culture."

This myth of the Western frontier had long engaged artists. Throughout the decades, more and more photographers embarked on trips across the country, drawn to its vastness and the possibility to reflect on place, time, and self. Here is our pick of the seminal road trip photography books.

  Editors’ Tip: The Open Road: Photography and the American Roadtrip by David Campany

Since the 1940s, the dream of the road trip, and the sense of possibility and freedom that it represents, has taken its own important place within American culture. Many photographers purposefully embarked on journeys across the U.S. in order to create work, including Robert Frank, whose seminal road trip resulted in The Americans. The Open Road considers the photographic road trip as a genre in and of itself and presents the story of photographers for whom the American road is muse. The book features David Campany's introduction to the genre and 18 chapters presented chronologically, each exploring one American road trip in depth through a portfolio of images and informative texts. This volume highlights some of the most important bodies of work made on the road, from The Americans to the present day.

Featured image: Mike Brodie, Period of Juvenile Prosperity.

Danny Lyon - The Bikeriders

During his five-decade-long career, photographer Danny Lyon has produced a compelling body of work, embracing both the lyrical and political potential of the medium. He tells radical stories by immersing himself deeply and intimately in the lives of his subjects.

In his first and seminal photobook, The Bikeriders from 1968, Lyon attempted to record and glorify the life of American bike riders and all of their hardships. At the age of 23, he joined the notorious motorcycle gang Chicago Outlaws, spending four years on the road with them and capturing the golden age of the outlaw bikers.

With a mix of realism and romanticism, Lyon documented life on the fringes of society, exposing the complexity and intimacy within this subculture.

Featured image: Danny Lyon - Sparky and Cowboy (Gary Rogues), Schererville, Indiana from The Bikeriders (Aperture, 2014).

Dennis Stock - California Trip

A renowned American journalist and photographer, Dennis Stock took a five-week road trip along the California highways in 1968, taking in the unique, heady spirit of the place and photographing the curious characters he met along the way.

The result is his seminal photobook titled California Trip, that has amassed a cult following since its publication in 1970.

Offering a snapshot of a particular place and generation at its best, these images show a menagerie of interesting characters, from cult leaders to hippies, off-duty actors, nudists and countless other free spirits at a seminal point in countercultural history. However, there is also a gentle sense of unease present, as he captures a more complex, less utopian reality that alludes to the era’s most penetrating political conflicts.

Featured image: Dennis Stock - Brucemas Day, Venice © Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos.

Mike Brodie - A Period of Juvenile Prosperity

Mike Brodie was only 17 when he first started rail-hopping in 2002. While crisscrossing the U.S. for years, he documented his experiences and his adopted family. After five years, 50,000 miles, 46 states and 200 rolls of film, Brodie came back with a vivid photographic record of a teen subculture living a perilous life on the tracks, distilling it into his first photobook A Period of Juvenile Prosperity.

One of the most impressive archives of personal travel photography, the photobook offers a fascinating glimpse into a subculture of simplicity, adventure, freedom and camaraderie, but also into a period of transition in Brodie's life. Documenting a decidedly American adventure, his images capture the dangers and joys of travel with plenty of romance mixed in with the dirt.

Featured image: Mike Brodie, Period of Juvenile Prosperity.

Robert Frank - The Americans

Described as one of the most influential photo books of all time, Robert Frank's seminal series The Americans provided a fresh and nuanced outsider’s view of post-war American society. Going on three separate road trips across the country over the course of two years and photographing American society in all its strata, Frank uncovered a side of America that differed from the country’s self-image at the time.

Capturing ordinary people doing ordinary things, he found a new sense of beauty in simple, overlooked corners of American life. At the same time, he scratched beneath the surface and illuminated the reality of the post-war era. Intuitive and immediate, Frank’s images broke many conventions of the time.

Featured image: Robert Frank - Trolley - New Orleans © 2008 Robert Frank.

Stephen Shore - Uncommon Places

Throughout his rich and prolific career, Stephen Shore has been turning everyday life into art. Between 1973 and 1979, he made a series of trips across the country, exploring the changing culture of America, but also how a photograph renders a segment of time and space in its scope.

This body of work was first published in 1982 as Uncommon Places, becoming a contemporary classic and a landmark of visual Americana.

Shore's body of work is distinct, as he managed to find the beauty in the mundane. He photographed crowded parking lots, busy and empty crossroads, oversized billboards, houses, brightly colored cars, interiors, and still-lifes⎯everything that makes up the American vernacular landscape. The series is a diary of sorts, but a diary of seeing.

Featured image: Stephen Shore - U.S. 10, Post Falls, Idaho, August 25, 1974, from Uncommon Places: The Complete Works (Aperture, 2015).

Ed Ruscha - Twenty-six Gasoline Stations

Although Ed Ruscha has always seen himself primarily as a painter, his photography books from the 1960s and 1970s are today considered paramount artistic commentaries on the cinematic and popular culture of the time.

Twenty-six Gasoline Stations from 1963, one of the many photobooks Ruscha self-published over the course of 15 years, is often considered to be the first modern artist’s book.

The book is comprised of images of 26 roadside filling stations along Route 66 between Los Angeles and Ruscha’s hometown of Oklahoma City, including stations in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Amarillo. This book represents a documentary of American novelty architecture and highway graphics, but it has been also cited as an artist’s book equivalent to a road movie.

Featured image: Ed Ruscha - Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1962.

Walker Evans - American Photographs

Documenting and distilling the essence of life in America, Walker Evans was a photographer whose influence on the evolution of ambitious photography during the second half of the 20th century was perhaps greatest than that of any other figure. Through his work, he created a collective portrait of the Eastern United States during a decade of profound transformation.

American Photographs was the name of the first one-person photography exhibition at MoMA and the accompanying landmark publication established the potential of the photographer’s book as an indivisible work of art. Traveling throughout the country, Evans portrayed American society through images of its individuals and social contexts, but also American cultural artifacts, such as the architecture of Main streets, factory towns, rural churches, and wooden houses.

Featured image: Walker Evans - General store interior. Moundville, Alabama. From the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division.

William Eggleston - Los Alamos

Regarded as one of the greatest photographers of his generation, William Eggleston has fundamentally changed how the urban landscape is viewed.

His Los Alamos series is a fascinating photographic story that began in the mid-1960s, reflecting Eggleston's distinct lexicon.

Between 1965 and 1974, Eggleston and Walter Hopps drove together through the USA, Eggleston taking photographs, Hopps at the wheel. Starting in Memphis, Eggleston's home for 50 years, the road took them to the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans, Las Vegas and southern California, before ending at the Santa Monica Pier. The over 2000 images the artist captured were only edited over thirty years later into a set of five books, with the help of Hopps, Caldecot Chubb and Eggleston's son Winston.

Featured image: William Eggleston, Los Alamos Revisited.

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