What I Learned About Photography Traveling Across The U.S.

A Photographer’s Notes on America At Work

If you’ve been following along, either here or on either Instagram, maybe you’ve seen that I’m doing a project called America At Work, specifically for publication here on Medium. It’s not just a cool assignment, it’s sort of the Mecca journey of photography. Traveling by car across America’s vast countryside, getting away from the usual haunts and discovering the heart of the country through the lens of a rangefinder camera… what photographer hasn’t dreamed of it? It certainly has been a life-long dream of mine, ever since I first saw the work of Robert Frank.

It has been a distinct privilege to get to do it, but I discovered a few days into it that there’s two distinct parts to it: the needs of the project, but also my own journey. Two needs are being met — those which get the project done and those that help me on my own path. that second part has been a much-harder-to-describe part of the journey that still evolves even as I confront it in writing.

So, now that there’s 6,500 miles and 18 states in my rearview mirror (and a lot of logged thinking hours), here are some of the things I’ve found myself discovering about my own photography as I’ve wheeled around the country:

Weird vs Wild

As anyone who has driven across the United States will tell you, the large majority of it is plain and simple landscape.

This poses a problem for the photographer, as the slightest deviation within the monotonous landscapes feels special and wanting of attention. But having seen more than my share of gas stations, small town oddities and American Kitsch in photographs, I came to final terms with the kind of work that I want to create. And it wasn’t that.

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“Flamingo Float.” Michigan, 2018. Photo by Josh S. Rose

The open road really confronts you with what appeals to you. And it became abundantly clear, after I got over the draw to shoot America’s weirdness, that what really gets me excited is the other direction. I simply find more beauty in normalcy than I do in oddity.

To me, this is the root of classicism — to find beauty not in what’s weird, but in the stripped and bare truth. Maybe even to such a degree that the normal thing suddenly and nakedly captured comes to stand for something timeless.

And in a time when magazine after magazine, feature after feature and post after post all want to spotlight the outlier, I’m just more interested and drawn toward the everyday. As fabulous as a floaty flamingo is, it is what it is — plastic. The real wings of life are with us in our fleshy normalcy.

Finding My Emotional Distance

Despite not finding much satisfaction in the American Oddity, I am enthralled by landmarks and those defining characteristics of the American landscape. The ones that seem unflappable.Through this trip, I’ve found myself, in my in between moments, overwhelmed with the idea of capturing the America landscape in a way that matches how I feel about the country.

When people ask me what kind of photography I do, I like to answer, “emotional landscapes.” It’s always been sort of a joke, but most jokes are a little true.

America is a thought — an emotion. And that emotion is something you feel more than put your finger on. My feeling traveling around is a lot about being overwhelmed. I feel small among the wide open spaces, towering mountains and architecture. But also small among the changes.

And I think that feeling of smallness is very human.

So, what I’ve learned is that my role as a photographer is not just to capture the subject, but to capture what I feel about it. And framing it is how I do that. Either up close or stepped back, it’s the same. How much of the frame does the object take up? What are the relationships of people to environment? As I move in and out, emotions are conveyed in different ways — there’s usually one spot where the frame feels the way I feel. And that is my role, to find that spot. That emotional distance from the subject, no matter what I’m shooting.

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Minnesota. Photo by Josh S. Rose, 2018.

What Stops You?

There are so many ways to photograph the American Road Trip, you can either try them all, or double down on what makes you you.

Eventually, the constant eyeballing of passing towns, scenes and compositions forces you to become extremely conscious about when you stop the car. And eventually you start to understand when and why you do it. And when and why you don’t.

And discovering that habit, a kind of journalistic instinct, gave me a little glimpse into my own ways.

Halfway through the journey I started to realize that much of the time I was forcing myself to stop to take a photo of something simply because it reminded me of other people’s photos. Like this gas station in Minnesota.

And that started to drive me mad and more and more I consciously let those scenes go.

Something was revealed to me toward the latter part of the trip, walking through the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company. As I passed through a basement room, one of the employees was doing some laundry. He didn’t see me as I paused to take a few snaps of him. Or maybe he did, and didn’t care. To me, this was America At Work. It was also me at work, intuitively feeling the unfolding of life here in a basement somewhere most people in the world had never been.

To me, this is the womb. Of life and my photography. I’m at home at about this distance. In the life, observing the life, at a place where you might sneak up on life and life might not know you did. I feel my sense of belonging right there.

Other photographers might get closer or farther away. Those are places to stand, too — maybe even more interesting places. But those distances start to tell the story of the photographer more than the subject.

I am a few steps back, like a stranger who just showed up. Maybe you see me, maybe you don’t. That’s good. Good for anyone seeing my images. From this distance, I can be your eyes.

Thanks for reading. More of my daily photography at joshsrose.

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A deep dive into photography, with professional photographer, artist and director, Josh S. Rose. Top Writer: Photography and Creativity.