Route 66 today is no route at all. It died the slow death of a thousand cuts as section after section was supplanted by interstates 55, 44, 40, and 15, It was finally laid to rest in 1985 when the federal government officially decommissioned it. The Route lives on, though, in hearts and minds, in the American psyche, and in the collective consciousness. What is more, for many it embodies America’s values of freedom and independence, and for others it is no less than a sanguine artery of the corporis Americae. Above all, though, it is steeped in the most American of emotions, nostalgia.
Photography of Route 66, from Instagram to published books, reinforces that nostalgia. The photographs conjure the fondly remembered, lost past through carefully framed and curated imagery. They present viewers with neon motel signs in jewel-box dusk, or with vintage cars parked outside Happy Days era diners, or with “ghost town” remains, faded roadside attractions, and recent archaeology. Route 66 is presented as a stretched-out Americana-themed attraction, or as a “look where we are” Instagram background.
So with that said, what does Route 66 have to do with street photography? Simply this: Route 66, once called “The Main Street of America,” is just that, a long – if disjointed – street. It stretches through America and American communities of all sorts. It winds through the urban and the suburban and the rural; through both the wealthy and the poor; through the functional and the failing and the fallen-down. Yet the contemporaneous photographic record of the Route shows virtually none of this. So in 2020 I set out, with a street photographer’s eye, to correct the record, embarking on the project that would become The Route 66 Primer, An Uncropped View of the Mother Road.
Street photography, according to Gary Winogrand, is all about respecting and capturing reality. He said:
“I like to think of photographing as a two-way act of respect. Respect for the medium by letting it do what it does best, describe. And respect for the subject by describing it as it is. A photograph must be responsible to both.”
The present concern is street photography as Winogrand described, and as he and others (Eggelston, Shore, and Soth, for instance) have practiced it. The Winogrand-described street photographer sees Route 66 quite differently than “art photographers” or casual Instagramers. He sees Route 66 as a present day reality, an environment of people and of place, and this street photographer photographs that environment, respectfully and accurately.
Photographing Route 66 in this way – capturing the whole of it, not just the nostalgic bits – is a daunting task. It is long, running from just over 2,400 miles in its 1926 incarnation to roughly 2,200 miles in its 1960s alignment. Elevations range from sea level to over 7,000 feet, through blistering hot deserts in summer and over impassable snow-bound peaks in winter.
To state the obvious, photographing everything, everyone, and everywhere along the Route is a practical impossibility. Not every fragment of every alignment of the Mother Road can realistically be explored. Some “dirt 66” sections and “off the line” alignments can be too treacherous, too remote, or too diminutive to warrant visits. The street photographer must answer for himself whether, for instance, the Jericho Gap in the Texas panhandler warrants a visit when it can be impossibly muddy, or if some farther afield “off the line” alignments, such as Geary, Oklahoma, sitting on a diminutive fragment of an ancient alignment, warrants one. He must also decide how far down abandoned sections of roadway he will explore, and how many dead ends he wants to travel down and back.
On the active road that remains, Route 66 at times passes through towns that have embraced their Route 66 identities and reinvented themselves as Route 66 themed attractions. Towns like Williams, Arizona and Tucumcari, New Mexico have converted their stretches of Route 66, at least in part, from functional travel oases of service stations, restaurants and motels, into veritable stage sets. Much like in Colonial Williamsburg or at Disney Epcot, in these reinvented towns tourists can “visit” recreations of places frozen in time. They can sip lattes in converted 1950’s service stations or lodge in neon-signed motels that once catered to weary cross country travelers. In many of these towns, refurbished nineteen fifties automobiles not only complete the theming, but put a finer point on the conjured time. And in each of these theme park towns, visitors can drop dollars on Route 66 mugs, pins, stickers, and t-shirts, before taking “we were here” selfies and scooting back to the interstate.
(One town, Oatman, Arizona, has no Route 66 era theming. Instead, it reenacts old west gunfights, although what exactly that has to do with Route 66 is never explained.)
The photographer seeking the “truth” of Route 66 cannot, on the one hand, ignore these places, as they form a part of the present day Route. On the other hand, such a photographer must be careful to capture the phenomenon of the town-as-theme-park without falling into the trap of simply repeating the theme. In other words, he must be careful to show the theme in the context of the place.
Like the themed towns on Route 66, photographing the people along the Route presents its own set of dilemmas for the street photographer.
First, while there is no population shortage along the Route – there are over 2.6 million people in the cities alone, excluding the terminal cities of Chicago and LA (and over 9 million adding those cities back in). Mostly, the population is dispersed and human density is low. To capture life along Route 66, then, the street photographer has to stop often and explore a lot of ground, slowly. It is a staccato rhythm of drive, stop, walk, shoot, repeat. That can be a tough transition for the city-centric street photographer who normally has a “grab the camera and go to where the people are” mentality.
Equally jarring for the street photographer can be the feeling of naked vulnerability, of being seen while seeing. In most places, there is no background “street noise” to disappear into nor any off-to-the-side vantage from which to shoot. Instead, the street photographer is conspicuously apparent to his would-be subjects, showing up out of nowhere with his camera gear and triggering the question, “who is this guy and what’s he taking pictures of?” This dynamic requires the photographer to adopt a different approach than he uses on busy metropolitan streets. He must learn to engage with his subjects rather than shoot-and-scoot.
All of these factors add up to a lot of work for the street photographer. It is certainly worlds away from his usual routine shooting in the city. Route 66 rewards all this effort, however, with images revealing the diversity of America. There is the American contrast of impoverished “we’re-still-here” communities, middle class suburbia/exurbia, and enclaves of manifest wealth, There is the juxtaposition of Chicago’s million square foot skyscrapers, Buckhorn’s 1,500 square foot houses, and San Fidel’s hundred square foot trailer homes. There are out-of-business store fronts in a hundred diminished towns; colorful, visually busy strip malls amidst endless suburban sprawl; and busy downtown city streetscapes.
There are, in the towns, hamlets, farmsteads, trailer parks, and cities, Americans of all descriptions engaged in every possible pursuit. White collar lawyers converse en route to the courthouse; retired septagenarians while away the hours on porches of old repurposed motels; boys-in-the-hood skateboard or pass around a joint; and the homeless and needy find community and charity where they can.
Fully and fairly seen, Route 66 is not a themed attraction of a remembered past, nor is it an archeological adventure to recent ruins. It is a microcosm of present-day America, writ large, and it is there for the street photographer to photograph.
You must be logged in to post a comment.