JTF (just the facts): A total of 50 black and white photographs, displayed unframed behind glass and pinned to white walls in one edge to edge sequence in the main gallery space and entry area. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1993 and 1998 and printed in 1999. Each print is sized 14×11 inches and is available in an edition of 10.
Comments/Context: The American road trip is one of the central cultural touchstones of 20th century photography. Often taken by an East coast native, or in the case of Robert Frank an outright foreigner, the road trip journey is an essential updating of the nation’s frontier wanderlust and a universal expression of youthful freedom. Over the decades, we have participated vicariously with countless ambitious photographers as they have hit the road and traveled West (or South), looking for both themselves and the fundamental essence of the American spirit. Coming out of a documentary tradition embodied by Walker Evans and transitioning later to more conceptual tropes, names like Garry Winogrand, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and many others set the standards for both the societal and aesthetic questions the American photographic road trip sought to answer and the visual results it delivered.
While it is unlikely that any of these photographers deliberately set out to document a solely masculine version of the road trip motif, it is the undeniable truth that the vast majority of these artistic travelers were men. And so this gendering of the road trip leads to inevitable questions about what these photographic journeys might have looked like had they been taken by more women. Would the choice of subjects and the inadvertent discoveries have been different? Would a female approach to the nuances of personal freedom and risk taking inherent in these journeys have led somewhere else? And would women have seen life in small town America with an alternate set of eyes?
Coming out of the MFA in photography program at Yale in 1983, Susan Lipper was certainly aware of this male-dominated road trip canon, and so we can absolutely see her late-1990s road trip project as a carefully crafted response to that fixed art historical reality. Lipper’s trip series (exhibited here in full for the first time in the US) wasn’t really a true road trip, but a deliberate recreation/performance of a fantasy road trip taken by a female photographer persona of Lipper’s invention. Over the course of a handful of years, she did indeed make car trips and take pictures, but not as herself exactly, but in the mental guise of this anonymous female photographer. So each resulting photograph isn’t necessarily what Lipper personally found of interest along the way, but a layered and informed aesthetic choice that Lipper imagines this feminist-minded photographer might have made.
Several of the images in the precisely sequenced group are direct homages to the previous road trip makers, some almost frame for frame recreations. There are Evans squared up houses and vernacular signage (a plywood hammer head, a fresh fruit seller where the fresh part of the sign has been packed away), Shore diner meals (eggs and raisin toast or a neatly cut white bread club sandwich and chips) and motel room TV screens, and an Eggleston tabletop scene with salt shaker, sugar, and a check. But even these outright replicas have a subtle twist, Shore’s hefty pancake breakfast and doubled juicy steaks replaced by something less overtly hearty and more modest.
Lipper’s images of mundane roads, cars, hotel rooms, and the trappings of travel have a very subtle undercurrent of menace, as though acknowledging that a woman on the road alone (even in the mid 1990s) might feel uncertain (or unsafe) in some of these seemingly banal situations. A study of highways and a broken down car can read either as stripes of lines or a dodgy place a woman might not want to be stuck. A motel parking lot at night offers pickup trucks and greasy American sedans, a welcoming place for the night taking on the possibility of trouble. And the interior shots of Lipper’s rooms are often skewed at pitched angles, giving an ordinary empty closet, mounted TV, or lacy curtain a sense of disquiet; this mood gets even weirder when we notice the old-style telephone with no numbers on the bedside (who can we call with this mute device?), the framed racially-charged image from Gone with the Wind in the bathroom, and the scrawled word MOTEL on the mirror like the ominous REDRUM from The Shining.
Many of the pictures in the series consider the idea of categorization, or organizing people into arrangements of “winners”. There are beauty queens and fishing hauls, suited men and babies, even 45 RPM records on a numbered rack, and in each case, when seen through a woman’s eye, these displays likely send signals about power, position, and “appropriate” women’s roles. The only two straightforward images of “people” in this whole series are anything but that, the “woman” a female mannequin anxiously posed in the woods, the “man” an actual man dressed like Jesus and hung on a crucifix. A deliberately glared photograph of a photograph hits this framework of roles once more, with a woman looking down with a laugh at a man (presumably her husband) asleep in his chair.
Another group of images considers the idea of language, and of the legibility of words and their meanings. Many have a wry sense of humor, from the “artifact display” which is padlocked, the “Push Here. Thank you” notice stuck above a random button taped to a pole, and the death notice scrawled on a paper plate and tacked to the notice board. Others have a more direct comedic slant, from a sign for Richard “Blood” Thomas running for police superintendent to Jimmy Field’s candidacy posted on a fence next to, you guessed it, a wide open field. Some signs need no further explanation – the sad description of the lost dog named “Lucky” or the “Laugh at Your Own Risk” warning posted near a water-side dock.
This sense of the road trip as filled with oddities and weirdness continues in a number of other pictures. Painted road arrows point at each other, a kindergarten animal sign offers inexplicable information, a house in a bottle is distorted by the glass, and a huge lobster (or crayfish?) threatens to smash a nearby car. Loudspeakers shout into the empty woods, picket fences guard nothing, and people leave Post-It notes with messages to God. Like many of her road trip compatriots, Lipper (and her alter ego) have found an eccentric streak running through the heart of America.
What sticks out about Lipper’s intensely smart project is just how aware she is of the history with which she is wrestling. There is almost no filler in this 50 image set – each photograph is part of a multi-faceted and carefully plotted argument she is making with the genre, and with the entrenched way of thinking left by the men who came before her. After seeing this body of work, it will be hard not to reconsider the overlooked gender-bias found in the road pictures of Shore, or Frank, or Eggleston, or to think about how Lipper’s contributions change that conversation. Few projects can effectively walk the knife edge of paying honest respect to history while also forcing an active recalibration of that past, and Lipper’s well-crafted pictures do just that.