Review: Museum of Fine Arts takes to the highway with 'Open Road'

Photos from Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, published in 1962, include Phillips 66, Flagstaff, Arizona, a gelatin silver print.
Photos from Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, published in 1962, include Phillips 66, Flagstaff, Arizona, a gelatin silver print.
Published Feb. 15, 2017

The road trip: It's often the subject of a rueful and riotous experience, a maker of memories. It is a symbol of breaking free, finding the new and novel, searching for an adventure.

"The Open Road" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg offers a compendium of its meanings in a more provocative way, exploring philosophically the meaning of travel and new implications when car ownership became a given and changed our perceptions of American life.

Eighteen photographers are represented by more than 100 images of their own journeys criss-crossing the United States from the mid 20th into the early 21st centuries. In the show, we see the technical evolution of the medium and the vast social changes being wrought because of this new mobility.

Don't be daunted by the number of works. Organized by the Aperture Foundation, "The Open Road" is well-edited, displayed in a mostly chronological way with excellent and accessible wall text.

An interesting detail is that of the 18 individuals, seven came to America as adults, either as naturalized citizens or visitors, most from Europe. Yet all share a similar mix of sensibilities. Their observations and cultural discoveries illustrate the diversity they encounter and see as confounding, sometimes exhilarating and often unsettling.

Robert Frank, who is generally recognized as the dean of the genre and who inspired many in later generations, opens the exhibition with examples from his landmark 1958 book, The Americans. It wasn't the first of its kind but it set the tone for other photographers as a record of the reality he encountered rather than a jolly travel journal. A grant enabled him to create over a two-year period "a broad, voluminous record of things American," he wrote in his successful application.

Without proselytizing, he sets before viewers a landscape laced with disturbing realities. A New Orleans trolley car carries whites in the front, blacks in the back. A group looks with dispassion at the enshrouded body of a car-crash victim. The view from a hotel room reveals a soulless scene of a road lined with drab buildings and billowing industrial smoke.

They foreshadow much in the show. Today, most of us travel on bland highways that teach us nothing about the areas we are traversing. Frank's roads, and most of the others, don't detour around encounters that seem small but are revelatory of large themes.

Photos from Ed Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations, published in 1962, are just that: images of 26 different gas stations that stand in for the hundreds lining roadways to enable long trips. Inge Morath, who like Frank was European, captures hitchhikers on a lonely stretch on her way to Reno, Nev.

Like Frank and Morath, many of the more recent photographers present an element of times past. William Eggleston's later portrait of a grocery store clerk bears the hallmarks of small-town America. Shot in profile and certainly not posed, he consolidates carts as a female shopper in sunglasses approaches the store. It's a color photograph and Eggleston, a master colorist, exploits the rather bland hues to make a vibrant palette sparkling with sunlight and the contrasting profile of the young man cast in shade on the building's wall.

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Color photography, like cars, became explosively popular as the 20th century moved along, and the differences in portrayals of encounters and experiences is another component of the show. One can argue the virtues of monotone versus multitone, but we see how the photographers use both to advantage.

An image of Joel Sternfeld's Wet'n Wild Aquatic Park, Orlando from 1980, for example, benefits from the ironic punch color gives it as frolickers romp in an artificial blue-water wave pool, beyond which we see a natural park of woods. There is also his amazing discovery of firefighters extinguishing a blaze as another shops at a pumpkin patch in the foreground. Stephen Shore's Trail's End Restaurant in Utah, 1973, presages today's Yelp photos in a tablescape of pancakes and cantaloupe. And without color, we would miss Justine Kurland's amazing detail of a little boy playing with a toy train against a panoramic backdrop that includes a real train.

Subversive moments interrupt the more passive commentaries. Ryan McGinley orchestrates a road trip in images, beginning in 2004 through 2014, that reimagine the hippy love-in era using naked young people plowing through fields and hanging from rock formations. A signature image used by the museum is his of a young woman sitting in the back of a truck, her hair blowing in the wind.

Victor Burgin overlays his photographs with poetic musings, using a billboard of a stripper, for example, to discuss the objectification of women. And Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs turn the earnestness of the other photographers upside down in manipulating their landscapes with interventions such as placing a fake circular road going nowhere onto a grassy plain and planting french fries on a rocky, majestic butte. Fast food is now everywhere, after all.

Some of the most disturbing photographs come from Jacob Holdt, a self-described vagabond from Denmark who roamed around the United States in the 1970s and photographed a range of Americans, from drug dealers to a wealthy playboy. His work is looped on a screen.

Photography captures moments, not continuous narratives as do movies. No beginnings arc to an end. Among the auxiliary additions are stills from road trip films such as Psycho and It Happened One Night proving that.

Finding a definitive vision is elusive and ultimately incomplete. We choose the routes we take and the connections we make along the way. And "along the way" is a subtext of this show in which backroads and byways, no matter the year and availability of interstates, map the course. The quintessential American road trip will never be realized by any one individual because, as all of these photographers show us, the terrain is too vast both in geographical and human dimensions. But there are quintessential truths about America in "The Open Road" that prove, as the cliche tells us, that we may learn more from the journey than the destination.