I recently returned to dingy England after a road trip in America, where, as usual, I failed to take any photographs. I did, however, take the poet Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, which opens with his famous declaration about America: “I take SPACE to be the central fact.” With this in mind I thought it would be revealing and appropriate to look at how people who have taken photographs have responded to this fact: how they have photographed American space. To make things as simple as possible I decided to concentrate on images of flat emptiness, avoiding mountainous areas where the contour lines jostle against each other. People, towns and buildings are also excluded, but I figured it was reasonable to include the Road, which is a metonym of the space it traverses. Plus or minus a few incidental details, I concerned myself exclusively with pictures comprising land and sky–and the route to the horizon where they meet.
Olson “spell[s] it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” The most powerful image of this infinite mercilessness is also the first. In 1860, while employed as a photographer on a government survey, Humphrey Lloyd Hime made a view of “The Prairie Looking West” that serves as a template for our own survey. Half of the albumen silver print is a blank sky. The other half shows a flat and grassless prairie, gnawed clean by a recent plague of grasshoppers. Last year’s exhibition at Tate Britain, American Sublime, revealed how American artists viewed their landscape through the conventions of European art. Hime’s photo is the flat denial of such conventions. Taken within eight years of Flaubert’s confessing his ambition “to write a book about nothing,” it is a picture of next to nothing. Only two small details disturb the scorched-earth view of endless desolation: a parched white bone and, slightly nearer the camera, a human skull. As Martha Sandweiss notes in her recent book Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, “no one had ever provided such a vivid and horrific visual image of the terrifying emptiness that stretched across the North American prairies.” As it happens, the picture was actually taken north of the political border, in Canada, but in the face of such vastness political boundaries are irrelevant.
After Hime there is a huge emptiness in the history of American photographs of emptiness. Emptiness was beyond the varied remits of the pictorialists, the Photo-Secessionists and the West Coast circle loosely associated with Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. We get a negative imprint of this in a letter written by Paul Strand in the course of a cross-country tour undertaken in 1915. Texas was interesting, he decided. “The country is flat. But the way the monotonous plain is broken by shacks and little houses is fascinating. Things become interesting as soon as the human element enters in.” But it is exactly the inhuman, unbroken monotony that we are concerned with here.
It is not until the mid-1930s that we get a chance to re-view the outlook pioneered by Hime. The connection is made as explicit as possible by Arthur Rothstein’s famous picture of a bleached steer’s skull that he found (and then moved for more dramatic effect) on the badlands of South Dakota in 1936. By then America was in the grip of an economic depression so severe that it seemed to generate a meteorological catastrophe of near-biblical proportions to go with it: the Dust Bowl. Photographers documenting this bleakly resilient period of American history for the Farm Security Administration were concerned, like Strand, with “the human element”–even when there were no humans around.
In 1938, Dorothea Lange, an explicitly “concerned” photographer, took a picture of “The Road West, New Mexico.” It is a view similar to Hime’s–with the crucial “human” addition of the road. The top third of the picture is a band of blank sky; the bottom two-thirds a barren landscape dominated by a highway pouring toward the horizon. Nothing is coming the other way. There’s no turning back. All you can do is keep heading west. Distance swallows you up. The distinguishing feature of this road is that it has absolutely no distinguishing features. But, having said that–and knowing what we do of Lange and the Depression–this road features vividly in our sense of American history. One edition of Lange’s work emphasizes the point by placing it next to a quotation from one of the people she met on the road: “Do you reckon I’d be out on the highway if I had it good at home?” As originally published in An American Exodus (1939) the picture was paired with one of a family of homeless tenant farmers, taking to a similar road like refugees. In this context, to put it in cinematic terms, “The Road West” is like their “point of view” shot.