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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Of The Week Somewhere Along the Line Photographs and Text by Joshua Dudley Greer Reviewed by Blake Andrews From 2011 to 2017 Joshua Dudley Greer traveled over 100,000 miles by car, focusing his camera on the massive network of superhighways that has become ubiquitous throughout the United States.
Somewhere Along the Line. By Joshua Dudley Greer.
Somewhere Along the Line  
Photographs and text by Joshua Dudley Greer

Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany, 2019.
144 pp., 10¾x13½x¾".

Long ago, at the tender age of twenty, I went on a classic American road trip. Three friends and I hopped in a camper and headed east from California. Over a three-month period we circumnavigated the core of the country, sleeping in parks, showering at college gyms, day laboring, and absorbing unfamiliar places.

Interstate 5, near Grapevine, California, 2014
Our experience is shared by a broad swath of the American middle class. The great American road trip is something of a rite of passage for the nation's youth. The U.S. is a huge physical space. A thick web of interstates and secondary byways connect most locations easily, surrounding wide pockets of unfamiliar territory. The whole thing is custom-suited for fickle wandering.

Road trips dovetail nicely with photography. Not only is the medium stoked by exploration, but photography requires physical proximity to function. Unlike painting or writing, one must be in the presence of a subject to make its photograph. Locomotion is required, so road trips feed the photo furnace. Indeed, where would American photography be without them?

For starters, Robert Frank's The Americans would not exist. Nor would Uncommon Places, American Prospects, Sleeping By The Mississippi, Highway Kind, A Period Of Juvenile Prosperity, or Royal Road Test. Large chunks would be missing from the oeuvres of Dorothea Lange, Joel Meyerowitz, Mitch Epstein, Todd Hido, Ryan McGinley, Lee Friedlander, and Henry Wessel, just to name a few. The FSA archive would probably not exist. Not to belabor the point, but the road trip is as central to American photography as Kodak or Szarkowski.

Interstate 70, near Salina, Kansas, 2014
Among the recent crop of road trippers is Joshua Dudley Greer. Between 2011 and 2017, from his home base in Tennessee, he put over 100,000 miles on his car, view camera in tow. For Greer the nation's road network was not simply an accommodation, it was his photographic subject. Or, to be more specific, his foil. "These roadways," he wrote as the project was developing, "have been designed to suppress any distinguishing characteristics of place and instead construct a familiar and uniform system of functional spaces built for mobility and productivity."

Them's fighting words, or at least they were initially. But a funny thing happened on Greer's way to critiquing the American highway system. He found countless scenes of quiet reverie and beauty. Sixty-two of them have been collected in his debut monograph, Somewhere Along The Line (Kehrer, 2019). A handy diagram in the back of the book (quoted graphically on the cover) charts his travels, along with trip descriptions annotated by date.

Interstate 75, near Lenox, Georgia, 2014
By any road trip standard, his travels were prodigious. They weave through virtually every corner of the lower 48, then out to Hawaii before stretching up the Al-Can through Canada and into the Alaskan interior. Like Greer's wanderings, the book samples democratically from all sections of the country. By my count 37 states are represented. I don't know if it's possible to summarize the entire breadth of the U.S. photographically, but Greer gives it a darned good shot.

Elkview, West Virginia, 2016
But enough about Greer's methodology; what of his photos? In a word, strong. Greer's picture making is precise and engaging. He knows where to stand, how to inject narrative, and most importantly what include and exclude from his photos. Throw in the ability to edit the mess into something cohesive, and he's got all the tools. The result is a road trip book that can sit comfortably on the shelf with Uncommon Places and American Prospects. Yes, it's that good.

Somewhere Along The Line wears the influence of Sternfeld and Shore proudly on its sleeve. A photograph of a semi rolled onto its flank brings to mind Sternfeld's elephant photo. A man standing in a dumpster and a model Hummer at White Sands are just as peculiar. As with much of American Prospects, open narratives leave the viewer hanging, wondering "what's the story here?" If Sternfeld is Greer's absurdist muse, Shore provides the bones. The first photo in the book, a freeway sign under renovation, seems to be a direct homage to Shore's Klamath Falls. Throughout the images to follow, Greer's clean precision and acute knack for positioning recall Uncommon Places. A bird's eye view of an oxbowed freeway is just about perfect in every way. Later on, a Baltimore urbanscape is a dystopian homage to Shore's famous Philadelphia van shot.

Interstate 83, Baltimore, Maryland, 2014
The Baltimore image exemplifies a darker current: the forgotten underbelly of America. On the one hand, photographs of displaced families, homeless camps, lost souls hanging cardboard, chain-linked greenspaces, and discarded toys are incredibly contemporary. On some level, this is the current American status quo. But photographically they trace a lineage 60 years back, to The Americans. How much has changed since the late 1950s? Depends who's counting, but you might not like the answer.

All of the material described above takes place within gas siphoning distance of various roadways, and sometimes under them, or looking down on them, or in an adjoining parking lot or gas station. Even when the material wanders astray, Somewhere Along The Line never lets the reader forget that it is a road book. Greer uses a cumbersome camera, so car proximity is a must. But as I hinted earlier, the impulse goes deeper. "While some may view this [road] infrastructure as nothing more than a necessary evil of modern existence," Greer writes, "it can also be seen as a manifestation of our collective consciousness, our failures and aspirations."

U.S. Highway 80, between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, 2015
Okay, roads are a necessary evil. So why are Greer's photographs so enjoyable? An ambiguous situation. Just to clear up any lingering doubts in the reader's mind, Ginger Strand's hard-hitting afterword, “Intertatia,” critiques interstates from a historical perspective. In Strand's mind, highways fall somewhere in the neighborhood of puppy killers or chemical weapons on the societal reprobation hierarchy. The contrast with Greer's beautiful imagery is jarring, but thought-provoking.

Greer's photos are packed with information across a wide depth of field. Fortunately, the book is scaled to allow for large reproductions. The book is nearly 11”x14”, with photographs around 9”x12”. The colors and tonality are spot on, with a wonderful semi-matte sheen, and slightly desaturated to remain authentic to the original scenes. Throw in two essays, maps, and a detailed travel itinerary and the whole package is quite an impressive debut. This book is bound to inspire some great American road trips, perhaps with cameras in tow.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at