Exercise 2.2: Explore a Road

Part one of this exercise asks us to photograph a road near us, compiling a contact sheet and a short series, in order to think about something familiar in a different way. I confess I had (and have) little inspiration for this project – although I frequently photograph footpaths, I found that roads held little interest for me. I’m not sure if the difference is simply between urban and natural landscape, or because I feel relaxed photographing in one location and self-conscious in the other. I don’t think it is as simple as being less interested in the urban because I enjoy photographing buildings, and have become more enthusiastic about street photography (though I still approach it with a lack of confidence). I think perhaps I was too fixated on the road itself as a landscape, rather than as a location for other stories to emerge. I may have had more success if I had thought of this as a street photography project (see for example Paul Graham’s “A1 The Great North Road” (2)).

After labouring over which road to work with, I finally just photographed the one I park on every day. Here is my contact sheet :

contact sheet road

Although when taking the images I felt pretty uninterested, I was surprised at how much I found in the images when I viewed them a day later. There are a few obvious themes to pick out:

  • I was more interested in details than in the broader environment
  • I was drawn to colour, probably because it was a grey road on a grey day
  • I was also drawn to pattern, particularly lines, and also to texture
  • I focused a lot on detritus: rubbish, weeds, anything that shouldn’t have been there
  • I am drawn to road signs (this is nothing new, one of my images for my very first OCA assignment was of a road sign. Since this exercise I have discovered that Walker Evans had a fixation with road signs so I am in good company! (3))

Although there is nothing inspirational here,  I have put together a few images which I think could begin to tell a story. What that story says is up to the viewer, but I have chosen images which have enough of a hint of something happening to provide a hook for the imagination. I’m not sure this is a convincing picture of the road in any truthful sense, it is creating a place of imaginative fiction rather than exploring the location, but I don’t think it is any less interesting for that.

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The only other series I could see here would have been one based on restriction and control – much like the series of fences/gates I produced in I&P (see here). The fences and street signage are indicative of the way society operates to organise and coordinate the way we function as individuals.

Although there are several individual images of line/pattern/texture which I think are visually appealing, I have nothing meaningful to bind them together or create an interesting series. In amongst other images they could add to a sense of place or indicate the controlled, manmade nature of this location, but on their own they are purely decorative. What all of my images lack is a thread to bind them together – there are images here which would not be out of place in Chris Coekin’s “The Hitcher” (1), but where that series told a story of a journey, and was accompanied by portraits adding a human dimension, my pictures are just pictures.

Part two of this exercise asks us to review a road movie. I’m no film buff and I tend towards Hollywood Blockbusters rather than meaningful films, but for this I avoided Thelma and Louise (the only road movie I have willingly watched) and chose something new for me, Rain Man. This was described as a road movie on various websites, but early on the road was conspicuously absent, the focus being on more claustrophobic settings in motels.

Our first glimpse of the road comes at the start, when the lead character finds out about his father’s death whilst driving across the desert with his girlfriend. At this early stage the road represents freedom; we have established that he is in financial difficulties and this drive is his escape. The rest of the film focuses on an interstate car journey of the two brothers, one of whom is autistic, in order for the other brother to secure his father’s inheritance. The first significant appearance of the road situates it as a place of danger – the highway as the location of a crash, with bright lights and sirens in the darkness. This parallels the relationship between the brothers at this stage in the film; one might colloquially describe it as a “car crash”, there is no connection between them at all.

When we next see the road it is in the more traditional guise of an open-top car drive along an empty road, but the conversation is repetitive and annoying until the frustration becomes so much that they stop the car. Again the freedom that the road should represent has been curtailed. As the film goes on the mood of the driving changes – they drive faster, the focus is on the open road and the wind in their hair, just as their conversation becomes more upbeat  and their relationship more secure (and the soundtrack similarly mirrors the mood).

The journey in this film is both literal and metaphorical – a journey towards understanding as the relationship between brothers evolves. Motels evoke the limited nature of their early relationship, whereas the open road portrays a much more positive relationship. A watershed moment in the relationship occurs as they arrive at their destination, when the autistic brother is finally allowed to drive the car. The journey is over, though the film is not. The film itself ends in a reversal of the journey, the autistic brother returning to the home from where he was originally taken. This is a journey by train, which we (and his brother) watch departing as the film ends. I found it an odd ending, neither happy nor sad, merely pragmatic – perhaps the train is representative of this, it isn’t shown in a way that suggests freedom, just functionality.

I have found this section on the road hard going, nothing much has really struck a chord with me. I usually like to end a post with something useful that I can take from the work I have looked at, but beyond the obvious fact that a road is symbolic of a journey which can be both literal and metaphorical, I have struggled to apply this section to my own work. However I think the one thing I can take away is that landscape doesn’t have to be about what we see (aesthetics) nor about the concept of landscape and place (as my first assignment); it can be used as a way to bind together social documentary (as in for example Paul Graham’s work referenced above) or it can be used in a figurative or metaphorical way as in Rain Man.


(1) http://www.chriscoekin.com/index.php?/ongoing/the-hitcher-series-1/ (accessed 11th July 2017)

(2) http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/a1.html (accessed 11th July 2017)

(3) http://davidcampany.com/almost-the-same-thing-some-thoughts-on-the-photographer-as-collector/ (accessed 11th July 2017)


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