The cross-country road trip is a distinctively American tradition, driven from a yearning to see the “real” America, to see what lies beyond our insular environments. In the 1970s, photographer Reed Estabrook embarked on a road trip, documenting the infiniteness of the land, and the roadside markers that dotted the path along the way, now on view in a new show at Joseph Bellows gallery. “Reed Estabrook: American Roadside Monuments” depicts relics of Americana in vintage prints from the 1970s; like Robert Frank before him, Estabrook took to the road, driving West and photographing the sometimes-dilapidated remnants of 1950’s structures and advertising, some still in use, some abandoned.
The truck stop, which bloomed across America after President Dwight Eisenhower oversaw the building of over 40,000 miles of new interstates in the 1950s, is one of these relics. Estabrook captures what appears to be an abandoned stop in a vast expanse of land, the signage so worn down that only faint outlines of words are visible on the building’s side. Above, an unlit neon sign in the shape of a truck cuts across the empty sky. Another image shows the word “Cafe” scratched into the side of a car door, hoisted up on a pole, a sign for a building that no longer exists. Only the prairie behind is visible, stretching on seemingly forever.
“American Roadside Monuments is really about a Yankee kid’s encounter with the vastness of America and the American West,” Estabrook said in a statement. “People of my generation would routinely travel across the country via automobile. I’d round-tripped it twice by the time I graduated college. But in 1971, in my first teaching job at the University of Illinois, I found myself on the prairie. I could look out my bedroom window and see the Panama Limited train headed south from Chicago to New Orleans. The tracks were six miles away: flat is an understatement.”
Many of Estabrook’s photographs show these great expanses with no landmarks or hints as to where precisely they are. Some show these half-standing structures—an abandoned shop, a solitary wall— giving the phantasmic feel of a ghost town. Others, however, focus exclusively on billboards and cutouts, like the giant hand grasping a bottle of Coca-Cola, or the torso of a pin-up girl. These designs would come to define decades of American aesthetics, ones that today are recreated for the novelty of a ‘vintage’ look.
“Every summer, we would escape the tyranny of green by driving west, and these structures became dominant,” Estabrook said in a statement. “They are literally “MONUMENTS,” often handmade, quintessentially American, linking one to the life and lives of that place, and standing dramatically against the blue of the sky. They embodied that wonderful shared experience of roaming and discovery.”
By Christina Cacouris
Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.
“Reed Estabrook: American Roadside Monuments” is on view at Joseph Bellows Gallery until November 27, 2021.