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A Closer Look: Travelling Across the USA

German and English editions of Travelling Across the USA
Travelling Across the USA is a small softcover of photographs taken in 1954 by Paul Gerhard Diez, a young German seminary student who had recently completed a stint at the Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Diez explored his host country by hitch hiking, making a circuitous ten-week trip that took him from the tip of Cape Cod to the Pacific, through Colorado and around the coast of Florida. All the while he shot photographs, annotating them with captions and collected here after his death in 2009 by his son. The resulting snapshot of America is an interesting view, showing a rather diverse number of Americana icons like the California redwoods and Old Faithful, but also a homecoming parade and the New Jersey Turnpike. It's an isolated perspective from an outsider, a 25-year-old German eager to explore the marvelous landscape of post-war America.

from Travelling Across the USA
With the images at 3-1/2x5-1/2, the reproductions are similar to the size of an old postcard, and the bits of information provided with each seem to be just the kind of thing one would include to contextualize the scene for a distant recipient. These details give the book a sweet, personal feel, as if Diez had intended all along for his images to be shared in this manner. We are treated to shots of beautiful New England towns and expansive green prairies, parking lots full of the stylish round-bodies of the latest model automobiles and a visit to the Trapp family (of the Trapp Family Singers), which, Diez's notes, could have been a summer long stay for him though he turned down the invitation in favor of seeing more of the country. While he clearly had an eye for composition, Diez's images all have the pleasant earnestness of the hobbyist photographer, and a few of the technical problems that come with such endeavors. Only on occasion do we see a blue sky -- they are often over exposed (though Diez also seemed to encounter a good deal of clouds on his journey) and a number of images are rather charmingly out of focus.

Of course, these details matter little -- the essence of the collection isn't in clearly depicting the United States in 1954, but rather how Diez portrayed it. While he covered a lot of ground, his images aren't an expository view. They were captured as a changing tide was about to envelope the country, the same year as Brown v Board of Education, but aside from two images depicting members of Hopi and Seminole tribes, the America in Diez's photographs is entirely white. A single image of the backs of some buildings labeled "Black tenements" brings this omission into view. The United States shown by Diez is idealized yet not staged or shined up. It is perhaps the end of a time of American innocence, or more aptly, the end of a time when America believed in its innocence.

The essay by Georg Diez, Paul Gerhard Diez's son, that concludes the book is honest and touching, putting the photographs into a personal context, which ultimately, is just where this collection should reside. Recalling seeing the images in a slide show as a youth, Georg looks to the photographs for traces of the photographer, finding evidence of his father within the frame. Particularly as an American, it is difficult to look at these images without considering the implications of the time period they depict, but the book ignores these surface concerns and instead shifts our attention to how photography allows us to shape the world we represent and how this is a reflection of the self. Diez's images can only give us a cursory look at the United States he visited, but they can certainly inform us about the man who took them. It is a beautifully simple book, one of deceptive thoughtfulness. -- Sarah Bradley

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