Europeans might disagree, but let’s face it — there’s something quintessentially American about the road trip.
Celebrating this national wanderlust is “The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts through Sept. 11. Organized by New York’s Aperture Foundation, the exhibition features 19 artists from Robert Frank to Inge Morath.
“A lot of people credit Robert Frank with starting the road trip,” says Nancy Barr, DIA curator of photography, who notes that Walker Evans, visual poet of the federal Farm Security Administration, was documenting Americana and poverty in the South decades before Frank started shooting his landmark project, “The Americans.”
“Anyone in search of American experience was going out on the road,” Barr says. “Henri Cartier Bresson did a big road trip in the 1940s.”
That said, anyone who’s seen Frank’s artfully composed black-and-white images, like “Drive-In Movie, Detroit” or “Trolley — New Orleans,” both from 1955, knows the power they have to pull the viewer into the shot.
In the New Orleans image, streetcar passengers in three consecutive window seats stare directly at the photographer. (Did Frank bellow to get their attention, or what?)
Filling up the first window is a sour-faced white woman, clutching her handbag. Behind her, two well-dressed, unhappy little white kids peer out, clearly hot and bored. Behind them — apparently was the row where the streetcar’s “colored section” began — sits a handsome African-American man with gloomy eyes.
A completely different, and somewhat wackier, America emerges in the work of Minnesota photographer Alec Soth, the subject of a solo show at the Cranbrook Art Museum three years ago.
The images in “The Open Road” come from his “Sleeping by the Mississippi” series, when Soth followed every bend in the great muddy as it wends its way south from Minneapolis.
“Alec has this great wanderlust,” Barr says, “and does a lot of work now shooting people off the grid.” The resulting portraits, like “Charles, Vasa, Minnesota,” spotlight an America richly stocked with offbeat characters.
Justine Kurland has sketched out one of the gutsier photographic careers, traveling across the United States accompanied only by her small son, Casper. Kurland found Casper heightened the experience: “With a child, everything becomes dramatic.”
Barr is particularly pleased that Kurland is in the show, since road photography is often dominated by men. “Kurland never expressed being fearful while on the road,” she says, “despite the vulnerability of being out there with a child.”
Check out “Claire, 8th Ward,” a moody portrait of a miniskirted young woman perched on the tailgate of a pickup, lost in her accordion while a slightly out-of-focus party carries on 20 feet away.
It’s all New Orleans — the pickups, the youngster intent on her music and the party going on in front of a classic shotgun house.
As much as anything, this is a mesmerizing color study. The young woman’s hair is a dark copper, the truck dull green, the accordion bright red, while the house in the near distance is the palest, delicate pink.
Finally, there’s a Stephen Shore picture that combines great composition with what one assumes was just dumb luck of the sort every photographer prays for.
“U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon” stars a roadside billboard surrounded by visual drama — an azure sky with scudding white clouds, and a field stretching to the horizon that’s a study in rich greens and golds.
It would make a spectacular frame for anything at the picture’s center. But it’s the photo on said billboard that grabs the eye — an equally colorful and dramatic shot of Mount Hood looming over a mountain lake.
The fact that someone’s blotted out the billboard’s text with an uneven line of dark blue paint somehow makes the whole arrangement as perfect as it could be.
‘The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip’
Through Sept. 11
Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit
9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue.-Thur.; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
Free to residents of Macomb, Oakland & Wayne counties; all others, $12.50 - adults; $8 - seniors; $7 - college students; $6 - kids (6-17)