Richard Ansett

© Richard Ansett 2017

Entering into a personal contract with the genre of the great American road trip is a daunting experience. Reading the introductory essay of David Campany’s The Open Road inspires both awe and dread in considering what has gone before and what (if anything) there is left to do.

I am already at a potential disadvantage as I generally reject the reassuring crutches of nostalgia but I am now faced with the monumental legacy of Americana that make the otherwise boring distances of mindless road more bearable. I can neither romanticise the artists and writers that have defined America for me in the past. Great as they are and more importantly were, I see them now as accidentally contextualising my experience in relatively palatable and comprehendible terms; they have become part of my problem in attempting to define a relationship to the American present. Edward Hopper, Hunter S Thompson, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsburg, William Eggleston, Ed many. Their creations that represented either their unique connections with their present, have become a rose tinted spectacle through which to view the chaos and mess of ‘now America’. Perhaps this uncomfortable relationship with the present isthe defining emotion of our age and a place to start.

I realize soon after I have been driving my appropriately unimpressive Subaru rental for the first few hours, experiencing this landscape stripped to its bones of any inspiration by the previous work of others, that I am fucked and my only solace is in post modernism and then I realise that’s been done as well. Lee Friedlander is the most inspiring and therefore most infuriates me in my progress in finding a route through this nightmare landscape of obstructions to the contemporary aesthetic. Freedlander’s work is the closest to seeing the world as it is, a brutal, unemotional, view; nothing of sentimental value to cloud the objective vision of tarmac, lamp posts and wires passing through the images and beyond.

It occurs to me after hours of tedium that the key to many of the most famous representations of the great American road trip is not in the journeys themselves but in what happens and who one meets when you pull over. Now many projects not set out as Road Trips per say, can be re-framed and included. It’s a curatorial decision. This is helpful; “I am not on a roadtrip and I am not trying to define the genre..”

I work through my fear of failure and general anxiety, which I realise as always is a form of misappropriated energy and I re-direct it towards just shooting and trusting in the cocktail of my experience and informed instinct. I photograph a girl ‘Briani’ with her kitten by the roadside and I am threatened with a “knife through my heart” by a southern redneck cliché, so I withdraw back to the rental, I photograph a still life of an old rocking horse by a fence; I ask a good old boy to sit on an Eggleston tricycle, ‘past and present’ ..good. To record the world is only to record the world as I see it in that moment and the images can only represent my level of place and understanding in that moment. All other representations, thoughts of success and failure, comparisons with others fade away or rather are ‘bracketed’ and seen only as obstacles to my progress now.

I stop for a few days and I am immersed in a project about truth and reconciliation, documenting the coming together of a community of blacks and whites at the historic site of a lynching, as the relatives collect soil for the Equal Justice Initiative memorial . I create a whole body of work and I am emotionally engaged and so privileged to be present that any petty notions of creative success in defining anything, pale in comparison but I still feel like something is missing; like I’ve lost my keys (I haven’t). I don’t have that definitive project that brings my needs in parallel to all that I have learned. There is only one day left before I go back and I am sitting in a rocking chair on the stoop of a huge traditional Georgian mansion, it is 34 degrees and 100% humidity. I resist the temptation to go back inside to the comfort of the aircon (the difference between the two environments is so extreme that my camera fogs in the transition between both worlds and all I can do is wait for it to clear).

Ed Ruscha’s project Twenty Six Gasoline Stations helped to define the architecture of the American road experience as worthy of artistic documentation. This project rightly features in David Campany’s The Open Road and I feel it represents the biggest red flag for any artist attempting a contemporary representation of the genre now. Any photographer worth their salt must not under any circumstances succumb to the aesthetic heroine that is the ‘retro architecture series’. So with this in mind; I am speaking to a fellow inhabitant at the Gone With The Wind themed guest house, Twelve Elms, she casually informs me (4 hours before my flight back to the UK) that there is an index used by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) which exploits the propensity and spread of the Waffle House restaurant chain and its consistency in menu and opening times as an informal metric to assist ‘in the determination of the effect of a storm and the likely scale of assistance required for disaster recovery.’ The Waffle House chain has more than 2,100 locations in 25 states across the USA but most locations are in the South, where the chain is ‘a regional and cultural icon’. It was founded in 1955 and the architecture has been updated but each restaurant is so similar but just different enough to suit a typology that pays homage to Ruscha.

This project represented by the 9 Waffle Houses in a 4 mile radius of my hotel, is ticking some boxes, it is conceived and created in the moment whilst not only acknowledging what has gone before but directly referencing it. It brings the same banality of repetition of Ruscha and the Becher’s typologies as a continued discussion on the nature and effects of capitalism, whilst playing on the worst possible excesses of nostalgia for a long lost American dream. At the same time it introduces a new and present narrative of the FEMA index. I have found my keys.

During these 10 days on the road, I have taken on one of the most established and overworked genres in our esoteric world and in acknowledging the impossible task I have found a way to negotiate the cliches of the American Dream. One realisation is that I am merely observing and recording the world of others coping with the present and that includes the comfortable established notions of the past; it is only me that I can be sure is conflicted.

There can be a painful acknowledgment in educating ourselves of what has gone before, new work can feel so hopeless and daunting when everything does genuinely feel like it has been achieved but this is not the case. All work is inspired by something that has gone before and if we do not embrace this richness and diversity we are only exposing ourselves to the lowest common denominators of representation around us. No work is created in isolation and it is a fool who thinks their work is without influence. There is a difference between overt and amoral plagiarism and inspiration. Let’s wake up to what the the beauty of now means and flood ourselves with education and influences and see what comes out the other side, it is the only hope for a new generation of original and exciting photographic practice.

*most early photography regardless of subject was un-selfconsciously merely an informational record, to the extent that I sometimes feel that we imbue many early works with more meaning than was ever intentioned.