Views from the Open Road: Photography and Travel in the American West
By Kimberly Roberts
Figure 1: Scene near Winnemucca, Nevada, undated. The eye of the viewer is drawn first to the automobile, nestled within the circle of the earth. The focus is on the car and its immediate surroundings and only afterward to the horizon and beyond. Totally immersed in the landscape, the traveler creates an intimate, personal portrait of their journey.
According to Douglas R. Nickel, it is no surprise that the famous 19th century photographs of Carleton Watkins look like they were taken from trains: “Watkins’s vision of the West is in many respects railroad vision. The semi continuous, flattened, enframed but open-ended treatment of landscape…bears a striking resemblance to what one would have seen through the windows of a Pullman passenger car…the foreground indistinct, but the middle ground and distance visually arresting, since these went by more slowly.” This perspective created a photographic aesthetic and a means of connecting to and understanding the landscapes of the American West.
Figure 2: Highway U.S. 40, near Wendover, Nevada, circa 1940s. This image evokes a certain impersonal emptiness and a sense of yearning. There are no cars, just the road and the horizon spreading in all directions, creating a juxtaposition between the moment the camera lens snapped and whatever lies ahead, a perfect merging of place and time and desire.
This relationship between landscape and photographer began to change in the early 20th century, first with the invention of cameras suitable for amateur use and then as the automobile replaced the railway as the primary mode of travel for most Americans. Automobiles, offering freedom and a tantalizing access to once-distant horizons, created a visionary new landscape aesthetic. Tourists began taking their new cars out on old wagon routes and logging roads, no longer separated from the landscape in the confines of the railcar. The images they created show people and their cars immersed in the landscape, not separated from it or viewing it from a distance.
As the highway system was developed after World War II, the focus of roadside photography again changed. Highway engineering evolved, allowing for heavier traffic and higher speeds. The new roads, with banks and cutbacks, created a wedge between the traveler and their surroundings—not unlike railroad tracks, severing them from the immediacy of their surroundings. The photographs they took reflected these changes, returning to a panoramic focus on a distant horizon. However, the view from the railroad car had been out the sides; in an automobile, the gaze is frontward, the focus on the highway itself. Thus, the road becomes iconic of travel and of the “great wide open.”
Figure 3: Tracks, 1985 by Peter Goin. This image of the Black Rock Desert shows the evolution of this motif into Western icon: the view is solely focused ahead and the tracks and the horizon merge into a singular entity. The open road, the restlessness of the traveler, and the anticipation of the future meld into both immediacy and distance, the road itself simultaneously the present and the future.
Kimberly Roberts grew up all over the American West, mainly in Colorado. She studied literature and history at Colorado State University and has a master’s degree in the history of photography, landscape, and science from the University of Nevada, Reno, where she is the photograph curator in Special Collections.
Image of blogger/courtesy of Kimberly Roberts