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"Screeching trolleys, newsboys, gals cutting by, the smell of fried food and beer in the air, neons winking -- 'We're in the big town, Sal! Whooee!'" -- Jack Kerouac, On the Road

There is a long American romance with the road. Not only the open road, but sometimes almost any road will do. The creators of early TV shows knew this. Route 66 mythologized the highway with a sleek, shiny Corvette, the American dream incarnate. But Dragnet was all about the city and its streets, the neon vortex of good and evil. How does that relate to photography? New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) photography curator Steve Maklansky points out that the automobile was invented in 1886 and that the Kodak amateur camera appeared shortly after, in 1888. Thus began an epic dalliance, a flirtation of mechanical dreams.

In America, as elsewhere -- but especially in America -- street photography is a special genre. Although it has always been around, it came into its own as social landscape photography in the years following World War II. One of its seminal figures, Robert Frank, produced images that evoked some of the descriptive passages of Jack Kerouac's epochal beat novel On the Road, only Frank's imagery preceded Kerouac's prose by several years. Something of the spirit of Frank and Kerouac lives on in NOMA's Eyes on the Road show, which also includes some of the earliest precursors of the genre.

In this vein, Jacques Henri Lartigue's Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France, 1912, is a classic view of an early race car whizzing by some spectators. Because of a shutter anomaly, the car appears to be leaning forward while the spectators appear to lean back from it, like figures in a cartoon. It's typical of Lartigue's playful vision -- he was already an accomplished lensman by the time he took this picture at age 18.

Related but different juxtapositions appear in Lee Friedlander's Louisiana, 1968, in which a statue of a horse appears in the side mirror of a car. A kid on a bike appears in the space in front of the mirror, so you have this weird juxtaposition of horse and bike seemingly next to each other despite being nowhere near each other. Ordinarily, we don't see that way. Only when the camera's shutter stops the action do such spontaneous collages take shape.

Peculiar juxtapositions are Friedlander's specialty, as we see in Texas, 1965, in which a pickup truck is parked by a dead cactus. Rising above it is a star and circle with Lone Star Cafe spelled out in neon. On the left, a couple of 1950s pickup trucks sit in the arid sunlight like recently fallen space junk; on the right, a sign on a blank brick warehouse says "Refrigerated," and it's all totally ordinary yet totally surreal.

If Lee Friedlander is like a Bob Dylan of street photography, George Tice hints at moody Northern short stories in Car for Sale, 1969, a view of a '55 Oldsmobile glowing in the dark light of a rainy winter evening. Similarly, John Collier's Mohawk Trail, Massachusetts, 1941, a view of a convertible containing a frosty blonde babe in round dark glasses, evokes the short fiction of John Cheever, or even Scott Fitzgerald.

The romance of the open road always beckons because you never know what you'll find there. For Max Yavno, it was The Leg, 1940, a view of a lady's leg towering above the nighttime traffic like a prophetic vision: the largest shapely leg you've ever seen. It's there for promotional reasons, of course; this is America. Look closely and a sign advertises Sanderson's Stockings in neon. Or you might encounter a dinosaur, as in Steve Fitch's Concrete Dinosaur, 1982, probably one of those Goofy Golf concoctions featured in his "Diesels and Dinosaurs" series.

And so the road unwinds like a reel of film. The view may be static, as in Wynn Bullock's Highway 1, Big Sur, 1953, a strip of asphalt glowing in the silvery light of mists rolling up from the Pacific. Or it may be cinematic, as in Rose Davita's Portrait, 1975, a profile of a young woman in the passenger seat of a small car headed into the lights of the night like a character in a Kerouac novel transposed to the '70s. Like the movies, the road holds infinite possibilities. How we respond has much to say about who we are as people. The responses of these photographers have much to say about America.

click to enlarge Rose Davita's Portrait has a cinematic quality to it, which is appropriate considering the infinite possibilities of both the road and movies.
  • Rose Davita's Portrait has a cinematic quality to it, which is appropriate considering the infinite possibilities of both the road and movies.
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