Understanding America Via the Interstate: Joshua Dudley Greer on His New Photo Book
March 15, 2019
Joshua Dudley Greer’s new book is about a road trip that focuses on the road. “Elkview, West Virginia, 2016.”
It was a combination of youthful naiveté and ambition that drove Joshua Dudley Greer to make his first cross-country road trip in search of photographs. Since his first journey at 19, he’s spent half his life “drifting from picture to picture and parking lot to parking lot,” he says. In doing so, he has joined a long line of photographers who have set out by car to tell a story about America. He has also set himself a difficult task: to create something compelling from a subject as well-worn as a bald tire. “If I had ever fully considered the nature of what I was doing out there, I probably wouldn’t have attempted to make the first picture,” he explains. “When I’m out photographing, I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, I’m just trying to figure things out for myself and I do so with a tremendous amount of respect for the history of the medium.” His new book, Somewhere Along the Line (Kehrer), gathers large-format photographs he made between 2011 and 2018 while traveling the Interstate Highway System. The U.S. network of superhighways was conceived in the 1950s by President Eisenhower, who envisioned the roads as part of America’s military defense infrastructure. America’s highways have since become an inextricable part of the country’s national identity.
The Highway System offered Greer a set of parameters for the project, as well as an unexplored angle. “The Interstate Highway System is such an essential component of our economic and physical world, but it seems to be largely unconsidered photographically,” he says. “I wanted something that was indicative of the culture—overwhelming in scope and dishearteningly impersonal but with a tinge of hope and promise.” Greer sees the highways as metaphors for “where we are as a nation right now”: an aging infrastructure tied to an oil-based economy; divided by barriers real and imagined; a wealthy but inequitable society.
The interstate system was “designed to look the same everywhere,” Greer explains, so part of his challenge was to make compelling images from that sameness. He realized early on that it was important to “see not just where the interstates existed but how they affected the surrounding environment.” The project was also an exercise in patience. “I wanted to make landscape photographs that had a narrative quality to them so I was reliant on the unexpected and the serendipitous,” Greer explains. “That meant spending a lot of time on the road, a lot of time waiting and a lot of time willing pictures into existence.”
In one image, we see two young men sitting on a berm watching their car burn on the side of the highway. On a billboard in a Kansas field, someone has hand-painted a plea: “I Need a Kidney.” On an overpass in Virginia, a man in military uniform salutes a flag he presumably brought there in a display of patriotism. A group of demonstrators march along U.S. Route 80 between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. A bright green trash bag that was full of children’s toys has exploded on the side of the road. By a highway exit under a massive oak tree, we see a tent encampment. In a picture from Las Vegas, casino hotels loom over a pair of pants and a blanket hanging to dry on a fence in a dirt lot.
As he worked on the project, “Looking at maps and seeing how roads break up physical and social space,” Greer says, “I became really enamored with boundaries, both real and imagined. There are so many forms of division that are both visible and invisible in the landscape and I wanted to address those in the work. I specifically looked at the separations between public and private space, the individual and the collective, and the countervailing ideas of home and escape.”
Inequality is one of the book’s recurring themes. As Greer traveled, he would sleep in his car and live “a very modest existence,” he says, which attuned him to “the levels of privilege and need that pervade our society. I found myself pitying those who were struggling out in the cold and at the same time envying the warm light glowing from cookie-cutter houses off in the distance.”
Along these roads, Greer has “come to know this country,” he says. “[Economics reporter] Robert Samuelson said, ‘To understand America, you have to understand the highways,’ so here I am, trying to understand.” Those who have traveled the interstates for long distances will recognize what Greer has captured—from the delightful oddities and strange beauties, to the ugly, mind-numbing sameness, to the poverty and struggle evident in the undesirable spaces under, beside and adjacent to the roads. Somewhere Along the Line allows us to really focus on things we may notice but often blow past at speed.