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.

Lange shared this point of view to the extent that she got out of her car to take the picture. Since there is no sign of a car and no hint of movement, she might as well be on foot. This emphasizes the scale of the trek that lies ahead. You could stand here for hours waiting for a car to come by and then stand for another two hours after it’s passed, waiting for another, hoping this time it will stop.

Lange’s picture is of the long road to some kind of economic salvation. Its colossal emptiness could be a sign of infinite promise, but it also suggests a chronic scarcity of resources, an undeviating absence that will persist to the horizon or the grave. Because we know that Lange was a photographer dedicated to depicting the lives of migrants, Okies and sharecroppers, we know–even though, strictly speaking, we cannot know it from the picture–that the road ahead is not an expression of her journey but of the road taken by those whose lives she was documenting.

The contrast with a strikingly similar picture taken by Robert Frank in the course of a Guggenheim-funded trip through America in 1955-56 could hardly be greater. Like Lange’s, Frank’s photo–also taken in New Mexico, of Highway 285–shows a road heading to the horizon. The scene is scarcely less desolate than Lange’s, but it has a different kind of sadness: the sadness of the night, the Kerouac sadness that stands for the promise and romance of new adventures and, in Frank’s case, new photographs. In keeping with this, the greased-white sheen on the road imparts a feeling of motion, movement. I assume Frank, like Lange, was standing when he took it, but the picture is touched by the idea of mobility, of speed. Lange’s is about distance, remoteness; Frank’s is about covering ground. What was a symbol of the harsh reality of economic necessity is here the begetter of artistic possibilities and imminent encounters. Just what these encounters will be is anybody’s guess. There is no telling, as we turn the pages of Frank’s book The Americans (1958), where this road might lead. Lange documented a desperate search for work; here the search is not for work but for works of art, for images. The tacit subject of the photographs has become the photographer’s own vision and journey. This road is thus a picture of Frank’s trip or at least one segment of it. Lange’s families of migrants have been replaced by the photographer’s own family, an impression confirmed by the book’s closing sequence of pictures of Frank’s wife and their two children at a truck stop in Texas.

So, these two strikingly similar photos–photos of almost nothing–express clearly what John Szarkowski would later describe as a movement from documentary photography “in the service of a social cause…towards more personal ends.”

Despite the enthusiastic support of Walker Evans, the pre-eminent photographer of the earlier generation, Frank’s perceived indifference to traditional ideas of visual composition was so challenging that at first he could not find a US publisher for the book. In the course of his Guggenheim-funded romp through America in 1964, Garry Winogrand pushed things a stage further, combining Frank’s ad hoc aesthetic with a pictorial appetite so voracious it bordered on indiscriminate. In Frank’s pictures motion is implied; Winogrand’s are taken on the move, from the left-hand seat, while he’s actually driving, thereby enhancing the feeling of the snatched moment, of near-randomness. The car becomes a self-contained little ecosystem, quite literally a worldview. On several occasions Frank photographs from his car–through the open side windows, say–but never through the windshield. For Winogrand the hood of the car and the streaks and smudges on the windshield become part of the picture; the dark interior roof of the car and the dashboard create a frame within the frame. The windshield becomes, in effect, a screen onto which the ongoing glimpses of life on the road are flickeringly projected.

Several shots are similar to Frank’s and Lange’s pictures of the open road, but the vastness is rendered manageable by the interior framing of the car. The knowledge that we are behind the wheel shrinks the distance, renders it familiar–homely even. This is brought out in another of these land-sky-and-highway pictures, taken “Near El Paso,” of a home being towed along the highway–not a mobile home as such but a home that is temporarily mobile. In another picture, taken “Near Dallas,” an interminable freight train is on a bridge crossing the highway, extending from one side of the picture frame to the other. The distant horizon has been blotted out: instead of a destination there is simply another means of transport.

So: Lange takes a picture of the open road; Frank takes an almost identical picture at night; Winogrand takes several through the windshield of his car… Then we come to Michael Ormerod, who peers at the road through a rain-spotted windshield in twilight. A white truck, lights blurring through the rain, is coming the other way. A gray sag of cloud weighs down on everything. At any moment the wipers are going to either clear the picture or smear it across the windshield. I looked back though The Americans to see if any of Frank’s pictures are as blurred and dimly focused. No, they aren’t; nor are any of Winogrand’s as far gone as this. A basic drive in the development of all arts is to advance formally, the corollary of which is the Flaubertian urge to do away with content, to get to the point where “the subject would be almost invisible.” Of course, this is a far more radical step in the visual arts than in literature. Ormerod simultaneously indicates his debt to Frank and Winogrand, and, as we say in Britain, overtakes them.

Despite the Scottish weather (clouds, wind, rain), the scene could not be mistaken for Britain; even with the clouds bearing down like this it couldn’t be a road on our little island. There’s none of that awful hemmed-in-ness, none of the oppressive sense of being, as D.H. Lawrence so perfectly expressed it, in a country the size of someone’s backyard. Like Lawrence, Ormerod was born in gloomy England, in 1947, and died young (in a car accident in Arizona). Like Lawrence (and unlike Cartier-Bresson, who felt America was “too vast to photograph”), he basked in the geographical expansiveness of the United States.

This endless space is still being explored by contemporary photographers. Here I want to mention just two, both of whom work in color. Peter Brown has spent years photographing the Central Plains of America, which he first passed through with his parents at 13. Many of the photographs in On the Plains (1999) show simple bands of earth and sky, but what in Hime had been foreboding has here become gentle, beautiful, soothing. A picture of a “Dirt road and sky, west of Mullinsville, Kansas, 1991,” shows the road yawning toward the horizon, as familiar and inviting as an English country lane. In another, of a “Plowed field, west of Levelland, Texas, 1992,” the furrows–reminiscent of those photographed by Atget near Limoges–express unending fertility. Rather than an expanse of land divided by a road, the perspectival recession of the furrows turns the land itself into a road–a Zen road, if you will, one there is no point taking because wherever you are it will always be the same. Geophysicists say that space is what stops everything being in the same place. In Brown, space is the place.

The Great Plains used to be known as the Great American Desert. Farther west, Richard Misrach has devoted himself to an ongoing visual compendium of “desertness,” or the “idea” of the desert. As in Hime’s photo, the emptiness is marked and marred by a few tiny details: unexploded ordnance on the Bravo-20 Bombing Range in Nevada, for example. On other occasions nothing detracts from the silent immensity of sky and land. In a picture of the Black Rock Desert (1989), the sunbaked playa is crisscrossed by tire tracks, traces, presumably, of an event or happening. It is like a representation of a mechanically driven version of aboriginal songlines, an imprint of desert dream-time in which there is no distinction between what has occurred and what is still to come. The tracks go in all directions: The vanishing point we have observed in many of the photos in the course of this journey could lie in any number of directions. Everywhere is nowhere.