Sometimes there is no story…a sign on Highway 278, Clarksdale towards Oxford. Alone and on the road
Sometimes there is no story…a sign on Highway 278, Clarksdale towards Oxford. Alone and on the road
What is: a Texaco gas station with a white Pontiac out front, the ghost town of Glenrio, TX
What was: The Texaco station was built by Joseph (Joe) Brownlee in 1950 on Route 66 at a time when Glenrio, TX was often bumper to bumper with traffic. Interstate 40 opened in 1973 and by 1975, Glenrio was on its way to becoming a ghost town as everything closed up.
Roxann Bownlee, daughter of Joe, grew up helping her father at the gas station. It was a family enterprise. In 1970, Roxann married Larry Lee Travis. With the decline of business in Glenrio, Larry rented the Standard Service Station near Adrian, Texas and each day drove the 25 miles to Adrian in his white Pontiac.
At the time, a group of gas, shop and service station owners had banded together as a vigilante force to patrol the streets of Vega and Adrian. On March 7th a 23-year-old Texan called Lewis Steven Powell entered the Standard Service Station. No-one knows what happened in those few minutes, whether Larry – proud of his hard work – refused to hand over his takings, but Powell made him kneel down and shot him in the back of the head before robbing the till.
Larry never came home, but his Pontiac Catalina did, and it keeps silent sentinel in Glenrio. Roxann still lives in the house behind with family and dogs, one of the few remaining resident of Glenrio.
What is: A Simple Spot, Phillips 66 in Adrian TX.
What was: This 1920s cottage style Phillips station was originally Knox’s Phillips 66 and located in Vega, Texas. It was moved to the town of Adrian, TX in 2016. Adrian is known as the midpoint of Route 66. It apparently patiently waits its turn at restoration. The owners, who also own the Bent Door Cafe next door, are rumored to be turning this little spot into a souvenir shop.
According to the Phillips Petroleum Company Museum in Bartlesville, the “Phillips 66” name for the gasoline came about by a combination of events. The specific gravity of the gasoline was close to 66; the car testing the fuel did 66 miles per hour; and, the test took place on US Route 66.
The advent of the Interstate highways routed traffic away from the once-thriving, often family owned gas stations, now located on secondary roads, many falling into disrepair.
In 1969, there were 236,000 gas stations. By 2016, there were 111,000 retail locations in the U.S. that sell fuel to the public.
What is: Robinson Grain Co., Conway TX. The Handbook of Texas reports Conway had a population of 175 in 1969 but only 50 people in 1970. In 2016 the population was recorded as three
What was: Grain elevators were invented by Joseph Dart and Robert Dunbar in 1842 in Buffalo, New York. They created the grain elevators to help with the problem of unloading and storing grain that was being transported through the Erie Canal. Grain Elevators in Conway TX date back to about 1914 and these are beside the abandoned railway roadbed of the Chicago, RockIsland and Gulf Railway.
A grain elevator is a facility for agriculture designed to stockpile or store grain. Bucket elevators are used to lift grain to a and then it can fall through spouts and/or conveyors into one or more bins, silos, or tanks in a facility. It can then be emptied from bins, tanks, and silos, and conveyed, blended, and weighted into trucks, railroad cars, or barges for shipment. Concrete silos are better than wood or metal bins because the thick walls insulate the grain from extreme weather
In 1994, this facility was privately owned and was considered a small regional grain elevator. There were 6 locations in the area with a capacity of 4.5 million bushels of storage. It was part of the Texas Grain and Feed Association representing 900 grain, feed and processing firms at that time. Today that organization supports some 400 member companies ranging from sizable producers to medium and small-scale family-owned companies such as feed producers and grain marketing businesses. Ben Boerner, Texas Grian & Feed president noted, “The small-town, family-owned elevators are going the way of the independent grocers,” Boerner says. “The kids aren’t interested in continuing the business, so they’re either selling out or shutting the doors.” (Source: https://www.austinchronicle.com/columns/2008-02-08/589092/)
The abandoned Brownlee Diner at Glenrio, Texas
What is: Abandoned building, Glen Rio, New Mexico
What was: A roadside America story, without a story. Maybe an abandoned part of a gas station, like an bathroom ?
Consider making photo books where the images speak and relate to each other,
holding hands to make a work that is greater in impact than the individual parts.” . Harvey Benge
Thoughts about Photo Books
Today, most photography is consumed on our phones and computers. Shared on social media, scrolling and scrolling as the images go by, liking and commenting here and there. Digital consumption of photography makes for broad distribution for the photographer and gives viewers lots to look at and enjoy. However, viewing a photograph in print is a different experience.
One form of a print photograph is obviously the print – owned or viewed at an art gallery and on museum walls. Another form of print is the photobook, more often owned. Like a print, the photobook is an object you can hold in your hand. Unlike a single or couple of prints on a wall, photobooks include numerous images sequenced and laid out in a manner that brings meaning to the series as a whole. The composition of the photobook is not simply about the rectangular framing of a single image, rather it is about the series, the sequence and the overall narrative.
Walker Evans suggested that “he could create a sequence of pictures that could become in and of itself a work of art,” Sarah Hermanson Meister, Curator of Photographs at MOMA has noted. “It’s not just that each individual picture was great or actually described its purported subject. But without any knowledge of narrative or chronological structure, he was creating the photo book as a work of art. That laid the groundwork for the whole artistic potential of what the photo book became in the 20th century.”
Some photobooks are simply images. Some photobooks include text. Others include materials that contextualize the pictures, such as correspondence, diary/journal entries, maps or illustrations. Some photobooks include design features that enhance the experience and materiality of the book. However, what is especially interesting across all of these formats is that a single photograph may tell a story, but a series of photographs brought together in a book offers a more complex and complete narrative. The cover design, image sequencing, accompanying text, and the pages themselves come together to play supporting roles. The books can rise to the level of art themselves, and art that that you can hold in your hand or leave on a coffee table, accessible to you and others to flip through and enjoy — sometimes seeing new things each time.
In fact, today the photobook is not just art, it is considered collectible art. Like all art, some collectors of photobooks base decisions on personal taste, knowledge or interest in an artist or specific subject matter. Others choose to collect based on artists but also with a view to rarity and seeking vintage first editions. Collectors are willing to pay steep prices for the world’s finest photography books, including: Ansel Adam’s Sierra Nevada; Walker Evan’s Let us now Praise Famous Men; Robert Frank’s The Americans; and, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment. For a primer on factors for consideration when collecting photobooks, check out this article.
The photobook has also become a way for photographers to disseminate their work to a broader audience than a single print can reach, while also serving as a way to tell a longer-form story about a project they have been working on.
If you want to explore photobooks by photographers of our time, check out: Radius Books, Aperture, Steidl, Phaidon, and Dewi Lewis Publishing. For reviews of some recent photobooks and a further understanding of the form, function and overall understanding check out The Conscientious Photography Magazine.
The more I study photography, the more it seems clear — photobooks are the optimal format.
Portable, shareable, permanent.
Behind the Scenes: Making a Book
A couple months ago a reviewer of my Roadside America portfolio of 15 images suggested I take those 15 images back up to roughly 40 images — the size of a book. It would prove to be a good experience in terms of editing and sequencing and offering a new way to look at the photographs, as a whole, as well as individually. Out of that came new ways to see the different ways the images connect with each other.
While Robert Frank’s 84 page book, The Americans, was a result of editing and sequencing from 27,000 photographs, my little project edited just a thousand images down to about 100 and from that, a book of 51 images.
The Process: At first, I went back to the raw material to see what I thought might build upon the portfolio of 15 images. As I identified those photographs, I made 4’’x 6’’ prints and then laid them out, mixing and matching sequences (see photo above). As I played with which images and sequences might work, I gradually settled in on a “master narrative” or what you might call the topics and chapters/sections of the book. Once that was settled (although the sequence of the chapters changed another couple times), I then reorganized photos and choices of photos in each section. I would often let the changes sit for a few days in order to digest the individual image placements, as well as the overall flow of the the sections and story. Of course, that would inevitably lead to more changes of both the images and the sequencing. I would go back and add, delete, rearrange the images all over again. Several months of this went by and I finally got to the point where I was no longer shuffling images around. The story was complete and images worked separately and together to do what I wanted.
Here’s a tip about all that editing and sequencing, in case you get the book (details below). The images are arranged as if you are on a road trip, coming into and going out of a town. Each “chapter” is about key elements in any community – the economy, transportation & distribution, travel, commerce, social and home.
The next steps were easier. I organized the photo files on the computer in the order I had settled on (photo below) and uploaded them to Blurb – an online self-publishing service that also includes a store front. I printed a couple proofs to see the book in reality. I made some additional changes to end up with what you can see today.
While Blurb is not the stature of the publishers I mentioned above, and there is no curator writing an introduction/essay or any assistance for wonderful design or typography, and it is mass produced, but it is nice to complete the project and have a book to hold in your hands and flip through. A good experience and a fun first effort.
Roadside America, In Black and White Infrared
If you are interested in previewing and/or purchasing the Roadside America book, you can visit Blurb. It is also available as an instant pdf download if you would prefer that.
Limited Edition of the Book: I am also printing a limited edition run of 15 signed copies of the book with a premium archival paper. You can email me if you are interested in that.
Additional Roadside America photographs are available on the website: https://binhammerphotographs.com/galleries
Prints from the Book: The images in this book are available as limited edition prints by emailing me directly. They are not all on the website.
“Across the USA I have photographed with these ideas in mind: to portray Americans as they live at present. Their every day and their Sunday, their realism and their dream. The look of their cities, towns and highways” — Robert Frank, application for renewal of Guggenheim Fellowship, 1956
The modern American road trip began to take shape in the late 1930s and into the 1940s, ushering in an era of a nation on the move. After 1945, postwar prosperity, mass consumption, paid vacation leaves, the development of new highways, followed by the interstate highway system, combined with the rapid growth of automobile ownership resulted in a growing number of family vacations on the road. Families traveled across the country, or at least out of state, to vacation, visit relatives or old friends in an increasingly mobile society. Road trips became a chance for children to learn about America – its’ big and diverse landscape, its’ history, national parks and monuments. Travel by car also created businesses to cater to Americans on the road, such as: gas stations; motels; campgrounds; diners; amusement parks and gift shops. The “road trip” was something uniquely American.
Photographs of the vacations filled family photo albums. Photography also gave us postcards to share these family adventures. The American road trip was the subject and incubator for literature, music, film and photography. It came to represent a sense of possibility and freedom, discovery and escape – a place to get lost and a way to find yourself. For the arts, road trips represented both a way to discover the nation and to illuminate who and what we are. The American Road trip became a staple of American photography as photographers sought to portray and/or better understand the vast land and the people in it – photographs were a way to look at, capture and show America’s character.
There are famous prints and photography books of personal travel, landscapes and landmarks. Robert Frank’s The Americans examined and critiqued America through images that challenged and found beauty in simple and often overlooked corners of the country. Walker Evan’s documented and distilled America to its essence using cultural artifacts and Americans in their social context in his book American photographs. Stephen Shore found beauty in the mundane and explored the changing culture of America. He documented everything from fast food meals to Cadillac cars, diners to dive bars, billboards to dashboards. He and William Eggleston created a visual encyclopedia in color of what we consider modern America. Danny Lyon’s body of work on the Bikeriders speaks to the freedom of the open road while also documenting groups on the fringe of society.
Photographers have pursued that great American road trip with purpose of nostalgia, social commentary and to explore the perspectives about the truth of the nation — its values and the lives lived in the context of the “American Dream.” The road trips by photographers, as David Campany notes, force us to “confront the clichés in our heads and the clichés out there in order to bring a new perspective to both the past and present.”
“What should happen at the end of a road trip? A return to the status quo? A revolutionary new beginning? A few minor adjustments to one’s outlook? Obviously, it is not enough to drive West and arrive in the Promised Land” —David Campany, “A Short History of the Long Road”
Fueling American road trips
Usually, at this time of the year I am on the road and off to visit Santa Fe. The pandemic has screwed that up for me this year. On the other hand, there is speculation that as we emerge from the pandemic, road trips may, at least for a while, be the kind of vacations Americans seek out again. As I looked at some road trip images, it occurred to me you can’t do a road trip without gasoline. We often take gas stations for granted. They are like a utility; we don’t think about them. In fact, gas stations represent and underpin America’s mobility and car culture. As part of exploring the roots of political, economic and social histories, I learned that gas stations speak to elements of architectural design through the years, pop culture, corporate standardization/branding, changes in the economy and business. They also are representative of changes in service for customers – from staff to fill the tank and clean your windshield to self-service; the addition of full-service garages to becoming convenience stores; offering branded maps and bathrooms to the addition of diners.
A Simple Spot, Phillips 66 in Adrian TX: The 1920s Phillips station (pictured above), originally called Knox’s was located in Vega,Texas on Route 66. It was moved to the town of Adrian,Texas, known as the midpoint of Route 66. It apparently awaits its turn at restoration. The owners, who also own the Bent Door Cafe next door, are rumored to be thinking about turning it into a souvenir shop.
From the First Gas Station Onwards: In early 1900, gasoline was sold in open containers at pharmacies, blacksmith shops, hardware stores and other retailers looking to make a few extra dollars of profit. The locale of the world’s first purpose-built gas station is debated. Some suggest it was constructed in 1905 in St. Louis, Missouri. Others point to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1913 when an architect designed a pagoda-style brick facility that was a complete drive in operation. Unlike earlier simple curbside gasoline filling stations, this station in Pittsburgh not only served to fill cars with gasoline, it also offered free air, water, crankcase service and tire and tube installation.
For the past 100 years gas stations have occupied prime locations along main streets, suburban corners, on small town roads and highways. They are one of America’s most commercial building types and over the years have gone through various architectural design iterations.
In the 1920s many gas stations were being built in prominent locations. Due to local complaints, the gas station took on the look of cottages/houses, as opposed to an earlier shack look. Tudor and English cottage designs with arched doorways and steeply pitched roofs became a common look. The design also became a sign of growing competition. Pure Oil favored English Cottage stations, while Standard Oil went for the Colonial revival design. Gas stations were designed to attract attention and lure customers – all part of the corporate branding. Over the years, the design characteristic of gas stations would change from cottages to a stylized box designs, often blending Art Moderne and international style motifs. Many of these featured glossy white exteriors and scientifically designed lighting schemes to attract attention. The box style stations also featured additional space for automobile service and repairs and expanded areas to sell batteries and other auto accessories. These would eventually morph into full-fledged “convenience” stores.
The Business of Gas Stations: The advent of the Interstate highway network routed traffic away from the once-thriving, often family owned, gas stations, that sprinkled the countryside. Today, many of these family owned businesses are located on secondary roads and falling into disrepair. In 1969, there were 236,000 gas stations. By 2016, there were 111,000 retail gas stations locations in the U.S. The number of gas stations has been declining due, in part, to increased competition, stricter environmental regulations, and shrinking gasoline profit margins
Explore Roadside America with me
More than gas stations, exploring roadside America can lead you to family owned motels, unique signs, communities, businesses and economies that have been lost to time and the changes to the world we live in. If you want a visual trip through different parts of America, beyond the curated selection in the Website galleries, feel free to gander though some of the material I work with at the links below. These images are the first-edits of the raw material. You can check them out, based on locations, at these links:
You can also find my most current Roadside images, with their detailed stories, in the Roadside America Photo series on Instagram. Click the image for the complete story line.
This post is from a recent email newsletter, if you want to sign up for future newsletters, here is the link. Of course, if there is something that catches your eye, I can always print it and make it a small batch limited edition. All you have to do is use the contact page information and I’ll work with you to find and print the image you love.