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 ?
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 ?
What is: Po’ Monkey’s was founded by Willie Seaberry in 1963, and was one of the last rural juke joints in the Mississippi Delta, wedged between a cotton field and a gravel road just over a mile west of Merigold, Mississippi.
What was: The shack was originally sharecroppers’ quarters. The building is made of tin and plywood, held together by nails, staples, and wires, loosely fashioned and made by Seaberry. Seaberry was best known for his strangely coordinated outfits of wildly exotic pantsuits. He could be seen sneaking out of bar room, into a bedroom offset of the drinking quarters, only to reappear in a new pantsuit. Seaberry was found dead on July 14, 2016. Po’ Monkey’s ceased operating after Seaberry’s death. The contents, including Christmas lights, signs and X-rated toy monkeys that hung from the ceiling, were auctioned off in 2018. The PORCH (Preservation of Rural Cultural Heritage) Society and Shonda Warner acquired them and hope to maintain the collection in a way that continues to bring it to life.
Po’ Monkey’s gained international fame as one of the most important cultural sites related to blues and American music. The club was typical of modern juke joints in that it rarely featured live entertainment, although it sometimes did. Often instead, Seaberry played recorded music, typically soul and R&B, using a DJ or a jukebox, and patrons danced, mingled, or shot pool. He had a strict rule against playing rap music, which he claimed he detested. Other rules included No loud music, no dope smoking.” Beer was to be purchased inside, but customers could bring in their own liquor.
Classic juke joints are found at rural crossroads and catered to the rural work force that began to emerge after the emancipation. Plantation workers and sharecroppers needed a place to relax and socialize following a hard week, particularly since they were barred from most white establishments by Jim Crow laws. Set up on the outskirts of town, often in ramshackle, abandoned buildings or private houses — never in newly-constructed buildings — juke joints offered food, drink, dancing and gambling for weary workers.
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.
“Our country is made for long trips”
American photographer Stephen Shore
Road trips are part of the fabric of America. They inform, inspire and invigorate.
The American road trip has long been a signature adventure for families. There must be thousands and thousands of family snapshots from summer vacations. The open road and the vast land have also engaged artists. Road trips are prominent in literature, with writings by Steinbeck and Kerouac for example, as well as in music, movies and photography. The road trip is part of our culture.
Photography captures and shares perspectives of the landscapes, our communities and the roadside signs and symbols of American life. Photographers, including Walker Evans and Edward Weston, immortalized their travels through the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1950s America’s culture was documented in the famous book, The Americans, by Robert Frank (among my personal favorites). In the 1970s Stephen Shore undertook his month long adventure resulting in the famous “American Surfaces” series. In 2014, David Campany’s book and traveling exhibit, The Open Road: Photography & the American Road Trip explored the photographic road trip as a genre of its own. He notes:
“the road trip confirmed our fascination, our horror,
our sense of possibility, of the sublime and the banal.
And forced us to confront the clichés in our heads and the clichés out there. I think that’s why most photographers go on the road.”
Road trips are what led to my Roadside America project which I continue to fine tune and evolve. These trips have:
Along the backroads of America are instances of human efforts serving as reminders that along today’s roadsides there are opportunities to pause, reflect and wonder about the people who settled once empty lands and the vibrant communities that were once part of the roadside
A look at some of the black and white infrared images coming out of digital processing. Images are from the recent road trip along Route 66, time in New Mexico and back through Mississippi
My friend Geoff Livingston, who was featured here in a photography showcase, has a podcast (also available as video) called the “Show me podcast” where he chats with folks about iconic photos and why they work (or not).
We caught up to talk about Robert Frank’s book, The Americans. And then we talked about the Roadside America project, Infrared photography and some of the thoughts behind PhotoNexus (at the 27 minute point) which I am organizing in Santa Fe, July 26 & 27.
Hope you can find the time to check out the podcast…and yes, a saxophone walks through it.
“As we travel through our busy lives we are often unaware of the history of the landscape that surrounds us. We speed along interstate highways that avoid communities; we fly across the country oblivious to the land, people and their places below.
Over time, human-built structures breakdown as communities change. They are abandoned and neglected. Deterioration occurs as nature works slowly and silently to reclaim her place in the landscape. However, the evidence of those past human endeavors melds with the natural elements creating its’ own beauty – a mystical reminder that the past persists, even just as relics of time gone by.
These reminders of the past are beacons to the endeavors and lives of people; previous generations who transformed the landscape to build a life. The backroads of America retain instances of human efforts to tame the land, make a living and build communities. These reminders along today’s empty roadsides are opportunities to pause, reflect and wonder about the people who settled once empty lands. The stories and memories are gone. The only evidence is left in the landscape. There are no ghosts to tell us more.
It begs the question: when today’s human landscape crumbles, what will remain of our presence among the landscapes. What palette will we leave behind?
For the black and white infrared images, the Roadside America images change our perception of a scene. We are offered the opportunity to explore the dream-like world of the forgotten past through the unseen light revealed by infrared as it is revealed by the camera.”
Interested in other Imagery? If you see some images and wonder if there are others like it, just hit the “contact me” page. There are lots more images where these came from. It’s always good to hear from you and learn more about what your interests are.
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