When was the first American road trip, and what forces catalyzed its commencement? In a sense, this is a trick question, because the entire American project is a sort of road trip, brutal and violent, but not without its own peculiar romance. Mason and Dixon, Lewis and Clarke, John Wesley Powell and Sir Francis Drake all ventured into unknown geographies in search of the better and the new, but even after the infinite sense of frontier which pervaded early American life had vanished, the spirit of adventure persisted and maintained a central role in American identity. Inhabitance of the Great Planes and the Great Basin were on a perpetual road trip well before Europeans arrived in what they called the New World. Negotiating with climate and natural resources, they had obvious economic reasons for such a lifestyle, and you might make the Weberian argument that there was something structural about America that prompted perpetual migration. Horatio Nelson Jackson’s drive, the first American automobile trip in 1903, preceded not into the unknown but back, from San Francisco to New England, the heart of civilization, and was undertaken not for any practical purpose but for romanticism and a fifty dollar wager. As the land was tamed the road trip became empowered by something extra-spatial. For Jack Kerouac it was transcendental. For Robert Frank it was political. For William Least-Heat Moon it was about redemption. For James Taylor and Denis Wilson playing the Driver and the Mechanic in Monte Hellman’s 1971 film Two-Lane Blacktop, it was about existentialism. Despite these vicissitudes, the road trip continues to occupy a symbolically charged position in the American lexicon, even as the age of the automobile declines and the concerns cyber space increasingly eclipse those of physical space.
As we struggle to redefine America, to lift her from the deterioration of a me generation of neglect and error (as Clint Eastwood said in his Superbowl commercial-cum-public service announcement: “it’s halftime America”), it is important to look back on what made us great in the first place. The Tea Party does this by apotheosizing the constitution, which is as grand and dramatic a gesture as it is politically untenable. Occupy does it by taking to the streets in a unique combination of confused and devoted sentiments ranging from populism to anarchy. Levi’s does it with advertisements of fireworks and teenagers making out. In the wake of globalization, America, always a sort of anti-nation, a nation of immigrants, defined by divisions of class, race, religion, politics, is more than ever open for re-articulation. There is plenty of room on the canvas for ideas about who we are and what we are doing.
In this somewhat maudlin but excited spirit of rediscovering America, Ethan Rafal’s Shock and Awe is particularly timely and important. Rafal doesn’t have the distance of the foreigner’s eye like Robert Frank, or the deep nativity of Least-Heat Moon. His is not wealthy, like Horatio, or on drugs like Kerouac. He isn’t fearless like Wesley Powell. He hasn’t dropped everything to move to Zuccotti Park, nor does he claim to represent the mysterious Joe Six-pack Sarah Palin always seems to be talking to. Americans have been enamored with images of the lonesome country for as long as such images have existed. The dilapidated barn, the bruised road, the tilting fence, these are icons which harken back to the beginning of photography itself. Likewise, visionaries from Walker Evans to Frank to Alec Soth have tried to articulate the Americans, wild and varied as we are. Rafal’s vision, while in this tradition, is also something new. Its high level of reflexivity grants it a sort of postmodern self-consciousness that in turn imbues it with a level of philosophical sophistication absent from other works of its type. Likewise, it is interspersed with text, deepening and directing the narrative much as James Agee did with Evans, or Kerouac with Frank. But what Shock and Awehas that American Photographs, The Americans, and even Sleeping By The Mississippi don’t, is a genuine organicness, a rough authenticity, a Benjaminian aura which is increasingly rare in an age of Facebook and iPads, increasingly valuable, and most of all, increasingly refreshing. Shock and Awe demands you slow down. The texts contain typos, the prints are sometimes damaged; there are scanned images of found garbage. The process of creation is embedded within the final form, as it is inter-twinned with the story being told. One of the lies of American culture has been that you can in fact have something for nothing, and worse, that you are entitled to it. This is reflected in the commodity-oriented arts, which prize speed of consumption. Audiences have YouTube video attention spans and that which requires more, god forbid that which bears material weight, is considered obsolete. In fact it is this very weight, it is the time you must spend, which, in this case at least, bestows lasting value. As the YouTube generation wakes up to the shallow side of its advances, works like Shock and Awe will continue to be deeply rewarding.
In a sense it’s a 9/11 story, and it works well along side the elliptical approach of a novel like Falling Man. But it is really about a darkness (and by proxy, a light) that is distinctly American, and perhaps integrally tied to the American landscape. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska would make an appropriate soundtrack:
They declared me unfit to live
Said into that great void my soul’d be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world
That meanness is one of the elements that shine through strongest upon a cursory inspection of the book. Likewise there is an eerie sense that we are about to be, or perhaps have already been, hurled into a void. Shock and Awe was composed on a shoestring budget, and the content has a grittiness that even Soth, travelling the country composing Sleeping By The Mississippi, doesn’t quite catch. In Soth’s work it’s all there, Rafal seems focused on implying the spaces and narratives around his images, we always sense he is just catching an edge. The specter of war, religious hysteria, economic downfall, and environmental devastation hang heavy over the pages. The postmodern dictum that art can only be about itself is supported and deflated by the book, which is so obviously about the process of creation, a young photographer yearning to discover the shape of his vision, but it is also a rumination on how America hurt itself or, as the subtitle of Thomas Friedman’s recent book reads: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. And its very existence offers something of a solution, that is, a small piece of one. Stop texting. Stop googling. Start paying attention. We have been acting like a nation of children, running every which way, every moment a new idea. We need to grow up.
One of the more impressive elements of the manuscript is its history. The photographs, mostly medium format, were collected over the years following 9/11 and Katrina, and the undeveloped film stored in freezers until Rafal stopped travelling, stopped shooting, established a studio in Potrero Hill, and began sorting what he’d collected and making prints. When the initial book was completed, hand bound in pleather, he shopped it at the New York houses for whom, not surprisingly, it was too experimental in content and form, and he failed to find a good fit, at which point he put the project on Kickstarter. Sixty-five dollars bought you a first run copy. This funded the initial printing. It’s exciting, as you flip through the pages, to imagine the circumstances in which this material came to light, be it sleeping with marijuana farmers in the Humboldt hills, four-wheeling with fishermen in Bristol Bay, standing in ghost towns or on the open road, or bent beneath a shop light beside the snarl of intersections where Bayshore, César Chávez, Potrero, and Highway 101 cross paths.
Rafal’s partner actually engaged Alec Soth in dialogue in the blogosphere about the travails of dating, or living with, a photographer, about the peculiarities of loving someone so devoted to an approach to form so threatened by the global economic situation. When he looks at photos, if you are standing next to him, you can feel his entire body tense, his breath tighten, as he squints at Stephen Shore’s images of seventies motel rooms, at Katy Grannan’s naked bodies, beautiful but simultaneously not quite right, just barely off, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. He shakes his head, lamenting the fate of Dash Snow, blaming the critics, blaming us all, and the assumptions that, in our thirst for continuity and verisimilitude, we too hastily make.
He insists on the inherent autobiography of such projects. And this resonates with our classic image of America, journeys into America, which have often doubled as journeys into the self. Identity in this country is so shifty and mysterious, everyone has to sort of make her own America, and thus, like a work of art, it’s as much about the creator as it is about the created. This manifests itself in popular culture through the increasing mythologizing of everyone’s personal narrative via social networking and consumer electronics. Instagram, for example, is the iPhone photo-sharing application recently purchased by Facebook. You take a picture, say of your daughter selling girl scout cookies to a big guy with crazy face tattoos and piercings, and then Instagram helps you put a sepia vintage look on it, and then it gets posted to a community blog, and you marvel at how consonant your own experience seems to be with the zeitgeist. I use this example not negatively (I am a member of this community with an active Flickr account), but simply to illustrate the depth of the progression in our relationship to image production.
Once upon a time I thought artists were particularly concerned with truth, which after the torrents of modernism seemed to trump the romantic ideal of beauty at every turn. But now, I think that pre-occupation has been disarmed as well. Exactly what has effected this transformation? Politics, for one thing; the failure of every major innovation of the twentieth century in the face of a sort of neo-liberalism with a fascist chic. Rafal was imprisoned in Sudan while on a photojournalism outing there, and was rescued from a tight spot by the US military. He was excited to see that one of the soldiers responsible for his rescue had donated to his project on Kickstarter. Many people have interpreted it as anti-America, although to me it is the opposite. What might in some circles be read as the same old lefty denouncement of neo-colonialism and class oppression could also be read as a celebration of some nebulous American spirit which is fighting to survive, and it can reveal itself anywhere, even in the battle with Islam, even in drug trade, even in a place that globalization seems to have structurally left so far behind.
Auden said: “It’s frightening how easy it is to commit murder in America.” Freedom is an American ideal, at the center of the national story and aesthetic. It’s also integrally tied to murder. In a debate last year, when the 234 people Rick Perry has executed as Governor of Texas were cited, members of the audience applauded. Freedom invites murder as murder manifests the ultimate freedom and its inverse. From the nation’s foundation on the back of revolution and genocide, to the imagery of westerns and war films, this tension has played itself out in specifically American spaces. On 9/11, two elementally American entities (skyscraper and jet plane) came together for the purpose of murder motivated by freedom. The response was murder in the space of military invasion to protect and promote freedom. Abortion debates extend the same paradigm not only to the ballot box but also to the bedroom. Conflicts with the Branch Davidians and at Ruby Ridge evoked the tension within the spaces of church compound and wilderness homestead. Kent State, Bundy and Whitman, and events at Columbine and Thurston high schools introduced murder to spaces we might never have imagined it in. Capital punishment progressed from a western (hanging, firing squad), to an industrial (gas chamber, electric chair), to a medical (lethal injection) setting. The hospital is also the locus of debates on physician assisted suicide and life support controversies (Terri Shaivo). From Heaven’s Gate to Matthew Shepard, murderous spaces are essential to the American narrative. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Shock and Awe is the extent to which captures the ambient effects of this violent aura. These are not conflict photos, in fact they are not even violent or shocking images, but they capture the sense, nebulous but powerful, that something is rotten.
I recently spoke to Rafal about the state of the arts, and asked him if he didn’t think their importance had diminished (I used the common argument about the novel, being outdated by changes in technology and economic structures), if perhaps we are approaching that state Marx imagined, when there are no longer painters, just men who paint. He said he thinks the arts are more important now than ever, that they are the ultimate gauge of society’s worth, a compass of sorts, in a time when we are, if not lost, certainly confused. Going to see Alec Soth speak at SFMOMA, he jokingly tried to initiate an Occupy style Mic Check (occupying art institutions makes perfect sense) when hundreds of people were turned away because the auditorium was full. It was a funny moment, exemplifying how the arts have collided with business in a particularly unproductive way. People have become accustomed to making art for free; they’ve been convinced they are less entitled to make a living than someone manipulating financial products or someone painting a house. Rafal is involved with a group called Artists for a Democratic Society, and it fits that Shock and Awe would emerge from such circles. He has aspirations of working in an organizational capacity for artists. He has high hopes for the potential of unionization.
An older Wim Wenders’ film called in English Alice in the Cities opens by following a writer turned photographer around America as he takes Polaroids of those cliché lonely places the country is so famous for. We watch the artist flip through television channels in motel rooms, click through radio stations in his car, stare long and hard out various windows. The negative connotations attached to cliché are understandable, but things are cliché for a reason. The photographs in Shock and Awe, as the crux of the project (the texts, the scans of found objects – which offer a sinister nod to Benjamin’s Arcades Project, as though we might be ragpicking the ruins of those very arcades, at least of the society which created them – are important but designed to frame the images) are reminiscent of some of Wenders’ (himself also a photographer) work. A man straddling a lawn ornament deer, wasted at ten in the morning. A fisherman closing his eyes with his hands inside his raingear bib, fields of wilting sunflowers, billboards. And then there is that old lady giving us the finger.
There is a photograph of the photographer standing beside his grandmother that is not included in the book. I don’t know if it could rightfully be called a self-portrait, if he orchestrated the shot in any way. Both people are smiling into the camera and flipping the bird, as it were, that is extending their middle fingers in a gesture which is usually antagonistic but here registers ironically and is somehow inviting and even intimate to the viewer, as though recognizing some existential inside joke, and we’re all in on it, even if it’s a bit of a shaggy dog. I’m reminded of the Stampers at the end of Sometimes a Great Notion, portrayed in the film by Henry Fonda and Paul Newman, “never give an inch” and all that. There was a trashy Victorian up the street from the art building where I went to college, and it had a stolen McDonald’s sign on its big wrap-around porch which had the phrase spray painted on it. Years later, that is years since I’d been to college or seen that sign of read or watched Kesey’s story, I saw a picture on a friend of a friend’s blog of the phrase tattooed on the inside of a woman’s lower lip, in a classic typewriter font, all lower case. I remember noticing that the woman had a Chelsea, that is a feminine haircut common in hardcore scenes associated with extremes of both sides of the political spectrum (libertarians and anarchists, fascists and communists, skinheads and sharps, who are skinheads against racial prejudice). Anyway the photograph of the photographer and his granny is full of that special moxy which is at once violent yet loving, and such a combination, in sex, in politics, in art, is difficult to attain and satisfying in a way little else is.
The old woman I picture a hundred years old in one of those Rockaway apartment complexes, cement and stucco stained with fog and the smog of prosperity, which cloaks that coast so haunted by the Old World, in the most brilliant and subversive ways. I picture her smoking. The dry click of the lighter at the kitchen table, the loud dress, eye-shadow, the ancient metal ashtray from which if you constructed a web of butts extinguished to lips and then onto other lips through kisses you might reach far corners: Joseph Brodsky, Carlos the Jackal in Khartoum, Teresa Teng, Betty Ford. Stephen Shore, in a recent talk, recounted a dinner with Ansel Adams at which the large format landscape master told the younger color innovator that he had a creative hot streak in the forties followed by decades of pot boiling (that is, churning out work for money). Shore spoke with forgiveness of New York’s idiosyncratic tendency to favor stability: it wants what it already has, what it has seen before, and what it knows how to use. The speaker was resolute in his advice not to kowtow to this desire, as understandable as it is. We all have to sacrifice our comfort if we want to overcome this growing stagnation. Shock and Awe is not a work that will connect with a giant audience, but if it is anything at all it is challenging, and such challenges radiate outward, and for our sniffling society, they are just what the doctor ordered.
About the reviewer:
Joshua Willey is a writer from Oregon.