INTRODUCTION

Despite what some have encouraged, I’ve rebelled from turning this project into a first person navel-gazing account of my journey around the country. If I really believe that a photograph can give meaning or change to the world, that wouldn’t be living like it. The chapters of this project, though unmarked, recall a journey around the United States retracing Robert Frank’s footsteps from his seminal book The Americans. It seeks to look outward on the business interests of mostly dishonorable men and the social notions shared by people under their governance. There are flags of progress, flags of patriotism, flags of corporatism, and even flags that aren’t actually flags at all. It’s about a country whose symbol is openly sold, overflowing, beneath a banner reading “Expect more. Pay less.” It’s as if it was the American motto, and we should stamp it into our coins, right next to “E Pluribus Unum” and “In God We Trust.” There are conversations about the America that used to be, and the America that is; each photo says something that goes beyond the moment captured. This entire endeavor has been something of a love letter and a cautionary tale, to both my country and my medium.

Many have viewed this project as an homage to Robert Frank, and while at face value I can’t disagree completely, I do think that homage is far too strong a word. I see it much more as a nod of the head and a “Thanks for the roadmap,” both literally and thematically. In that sense, this project has led me to be even more fascinated by the way that other expressive media, like music and film, are able to freely sample from rich histories without commotion.

I never went to photo school; formally speaking, I only ever studied design. The likes of Dieter Rams and Charles and Ray Eames were my heroes. Almost everyone I’ve respected in the photo industry, though, has charged me with studying its masters. Maybe I’ve overcompensated in that department. This was my way of not just studying, but living the masters, getting my hands dirty and seeing. America: cynical and wrecked, optimistic, but not sentimental or leaning into clichés. It was a spiritual journey of sorts for a young photographer.

I’m in the throes of a generation that’s widely lauded as being self-centered and entitled, but it’s also been forced to understand and interpret the world in a vastly different way than the those before could have imagined. The technologies that were promised to make our lives effortless have instead made it so we’re expected to do that much more. I’m neither here to glorify or demonize the folks at the bus stop in Hoboken, New Jersey, but rather, ask if that’s what should be normal. I’m no less culpable; I could have been one of them. Technology has made things faster, but not easier, photography included, and this project’s a testament to that.

The farther into this I find myself the more I realize that the thought provoking documentary photograph seems to be a thankless genre in the contemporary art establishment, with little gratification seen in the first thirty years of a photograph’s life. The Art Basels and Venice Biennales of the art machine have pressured us into looking for authenticity through unrelatable abstract concepts, processes, and materials. While there is significance to this and it warrants respect, it’s mostly the work of the armchair (or maybe in our case, darkroom) scholar. There are enough things that can only be seen through the active use of a camera that we should be using the medium for something more than the glorification of the medium itself. Use it to explore the mystery of what it means to be and to feel.

As you flip through the pages of this book, I encourage you to question the lives of its characters, both seen and unseen. Every individual photo and sequence of photos is an anecdote, typically interconnected thematically or visually. Sometimes even I’ve lost the truth of a few of these photos, but part of the experience is the story that you, the viewer, are able to bring to it. We’ve all lived different thoughts, feelings, experiences, and memories, and how we read into a photograph is affected by who we are.

Take a Look