The U.S. Interstate Highway System is 46,876 miles long and cost some $500 billion to construct. What is this place or network of places today? Its reputation as America’s greatest public works project, emerging from the triumphant Eisenhower years, is likely valued more highly by logistics coordinators at Amazon than by people who live in the Interstates’ slipstream: the long-haul truckers and daily commuters and homeless travelers who register conditions of disrepair.
Of course, American culture fetishized roads and ramblers long before the expressways were established. In writing about the photographs of Joshua Dudley Greer, one wants to quote not only statistics from the Federal Highway Administration, but also Walt Whitman — “You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here, / I believe that much unseen is also here” — and Jack Kerouac — “the road is life.” Looking at these images activates a mental playlist of films and books and songs: from Thelma and Louise to Easy Rider to Bonnie and Clyde; from The Grapes of Wrath to Parable of the Sower to Crash; from “Highway 61 Revisited,” to “Highway Chile,” to “Highway Patrolman.”
The ornery seekers and dystopian nomads of American self-regard haunt these images.
These wanderers through democratic vistas, the ornery seekers and dystopian nomads of American self-regard haunt Greer’s photographs. He works in the tradition of photographers and artists such as Robert Frank, Ed Ruscha, and Stephen Shore, parsing the flat vernacular of overpasses, off-ramps, gas stations, and fast food. There have always been itinerants and outlaws on this trip, carrying wistfulness and violence as well as joyride elation. The broad continent and its cars and have long generated forces of noirish, down-and-out, sci-fi-inflected grief. Mister state trooper, please don’t stop me.
Yet Greer’s vision is specific. He logged 100,000 miles between 2011 and 2017, a period defined by the financial crisis and the manipulated election, and in his images the anomie of superhighways is allowed to keep mythic loneliness but made to resist glamour. The roads plunge back toward the horizon as if they were heading out there to disintegrate, or they parallel the picture plane to create a kind of empty claustrophobia. In several images, the pavement really does crack up or simply end, midair. The person near Salina, Kansas, advertising for a kidney; the man in the Baltimore parking garage siphoning power to charge his phone; the man in the tent in the New Orleans parking complex celebrating Christmas (he actually has two trees, one decorated and one still bundled tight, stacked against the concrete pillar with its faded NO LOITERING sign): All project a similar stunned fortitude. The dogs on the asphalt in Page, Arizona, express this patience. So does the couple looking eerily relaxed on the embankment near Lenox, Georgia, watching the burning car that may or may not be theirs.
Greer’s eye seeks out paired units, fellow wayfarers.
It’s significant that there are two Christmas trees, two dogs, two people watching the car go up in flames. The redundant stop signs on 49th Avenue in Meridian, Mississippi, rhyme with the twin overpass supports that frame the little house under I-26 near Mars Hill, North Carolina — and with the futile double soundwall along the subdivision in Yukon, Oklahoma, and the buttes above the condos or casino or hotel in Green River, Wyoming, and the two guys (one in his socks) standing with the cop by their wrecked semi near Tehachapi, California. Greer’s eye seeks out paired units, fellow wayfarers. Companionship may not resolve their circumstances, but it does define them.