Visual Arts

Travel & photography: Postcards from the road

©Jonathan Day

JACK KEROUAC ALLEY—A SMUTTY, DOG EARED PASSAGE through the backs of buildings. On the shit smirched pavement is a spiral of shiny letters, dedicating this non-place to the writer’s memory. No bronze cast bust, no little statue, fenced around and grassily overgrown. Kerouac’s monument is to be walked on, expectorated over, decorated with chewing gum. Flanked by the City Lights Bookstore and the Vesuvio Café—somehow they hold Kerouac between them in their arms, and I start to see something more than merely insult in the designation of his ‘alley’. He is at home here hanging rather dissolute in this grubby netherworld, between intellectual endeavour and alcoholic dissolution. Writer Robert Lifton thought Jack craved an “authentic self”, and looked for it somewhere between beautiful words and the vomit, booze and bleachy reek of the up-all-night bright and blousy Vesuvio. The existential Hipster, Lifton intoned, craved “experiential transcendence”, a state in which the present moment is lived “with such intensity that time and death are, in effect, eliminated”. Danger and drugs held a promise of such experience:

The Beat and Hipster looked at vivid possibilities in the lives of new cultural heroes, individuals outside society either through personal rebellion or by social and racial circumstance: the jazz musician, hobo, black [this was the ‘50s…], criminal, insane person or dope addict. To be alienated, outside of social conventions and expectations, was to be set free, free to take to the road or to become part of the urban nether-world. (Lifton 1970: 53)

So here we have them, 50 years apart, Beat inspirations on a New York pavement and Beats on Hollywood Boulevard.

©Jonathan Day

I RODE THE LONG MILES OF US 285, NEW MEXICO BLISSFULLY, finding another answer to a Frank puzzle. How did he catch on film a silver shining desert road? It is heat haze, an aery mirror makes it shine, alchemically twisted by his black and white into silver on darkness. The time is wrong for me, the haze is fitful in the morning, a light that needs the afternoon. It’s fine—I’m not trying to steal his pictures. As always the challenge is to re-vision the image, capture something contingent but in a different way. Sometimes you just can’t… Off the road was a collapsing old white painted brick shack. For just a flash I thought I saw the ghost of Standard Oil, so turned the truck around on the hot road and headed back. It was an old filling station, advertising slogans barely visible any more, but for sure it was Standard Oil. The long decayed remains of a white wall tyre lay on the disused turnoff road in front, now buried under vegetation, detritus and dust. I wonder if this was a service road or maybe the original 285? It a lovely moment, a kiss through time into the world of then, the experimental archaeology of my journey. I could almost hear the tread of Robert’s shoe in dust, or the cackling laughter of Marylou, wild and lost in the backseat of Kerouac’s Cadillac. Are we ever as free as when we are lost?

©Jonathan Day

DEEP IN THE BELLY OF A RAILWAY STATION, the enormous kind that only cities spawn, I needed a toilet. Signs led me around corner after corner, up and down entirely purposeless seeming steps. Eventually, as if hidden away like a treasure, there was a men’s room, wrapped in a concrete and strip light womb. Stuck with little mosaic tiles, of a dirty terracotta tone—burnt umber perhaps, or something other—designed to complement the colour of piss. The tungsten light stained it yellow on yellow, a place to forget about, to ignore. In the corner an old man was impish faced in a white overall jacket—standing by a table arranged with toilet paper and a mug for tips. I asked if I could photograph him, here in this netherworld—a kind of purgatory it seemed to me, not hellish, quite, neither rattling heaven’s door.

My camera decided to mix him up with the street outside on this snowy night, bringing some kind of air and light to the eternal buzz of filaments and the distant rumble of tunnelled diesel trains. Somehow this image has become a thing for me of beauty, capturing better than anything that frozen winter town. The biting air, the bitter sky and the incalculable masses, marooned there with little option—land of the free, home of the brave.

By Jonathan Day

The text above are all extracts from Jonathan Day’s Postcards From The Road. Each photograph is accompanied by a commentary; a story of its making. By using Robert Frank’s The Americans as a reference, Day compliments Frank’s original journey by shooting new photographs and commenting on modern America. This is a captivating and beautiful book of life on the road, which reminds us how fascinating it can be to view the world around us from an outsiders perspective.

Postcards From The Road: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’
By Jonathan Day
Published May 2014

To read more, click here


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