“I am not comfortable with the term ‘Americana’,” says photographer David Graham. “My photographs are often about people’s passions – the way they have painted their house, the kind of car they own, the sculpture they built in their front yard, the way they dress up for a parade or how they have taken on the impersonation of a celebrity or historic figure,” he explains. For over 30 years David has taken to the road, working with archetypes of American vernacular photography from the snapshot to the family portrait to holiday pictures. In his tireless cross-country documentation of the American cultural landscape, he manages to colourfully capture the run-of-the-mill and the offbeat in the same image, allowing the ordinary to seem surreal and vice versa. This is what makes his photographs surprising and familiar at the same time.
The road trip is such a quintessentially American phenomenon. In 1981, David and his wife Jeannine packed into a 1970 red and white Volkswagen bus and drove from Pennsylvania to California and back in six weeks. “We had never seen the mid-west, mountains or desert. I remember the turning point was Sidney, Nebraska. Up until then, everything kind of looked like it could be a version of some part of Pennsylvania, but after Sidney, everything was different… We opened up the doors of the bus to experience it more fully, and the wind nearly ripped off the doors and knocked us down.” That was the first of seven road trips the photographer took between 1981 and 1988 before taking a more considered approach to his career-defining travels.
From kitsch Coney Island parades to poignant roadside signs, families and celebrity impersonators, I asked David a few questions about his life’s work chronicling the American dream.
How did you first get into photography?
My first encounter with photography was at home. My father had taken thousands of slides of the family vacations before I was born. These slides were of great interest to me, so, when my older brother and sister would be out on dates on a Saturday night, I would load up the trays and project them on the wall endlessly.
As far as really getting started taking photographs, I have to point to my friend, Mark Daniels. He is a year older than me and had gone off to college while I was still a senior in high school. When he came home for Thanksgiving he brought a journal filled with drawings, cartoons and photographs. I was sold! So we went to New York together to buy a 35mm camera and I decided right then that I would be a photographer.
How did road trips and travel become part of the way you work?
I have always, to this day, carried a serious camera with me whereever I went, shooting whatever was in front of me, but, additionally, we were constantly looking ahead to the next road trip: Maine, New Orleans, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, North Carolina. For a while, I would try and get hired to teach classes at various workshops, using the travel allowance to cover driving expenses instead of plane tickets.
How many road trips do you think you’ve taken?
Seven. The last one was in 1988. After that, I would identify an area of interest, fly there and my friend Gene Kennedy would pick me up. We would drive, shoot, camp and couch surf for a couple of weeks. We did this quite a few times and it resulted in my book Only in America in 1991. After that, I decided I couldn’t be away from my family so I started doing freelance magazine work. The assignments provided plane tickets, hotels and rental cars, income and the opportunity to shoot for myself. Ten years later, the non-stop traveling got to me once again, and I took a teaching position at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Now the summer vacations provide the traveling possibilities.
Your work captures an ordinary picture of America but also an oddball one. What are you more interested in?
I like it all. I like to find depth in very local and ordinary things such as my own family and my neighbours, doing familiar things in the back yard. These can actually be quite difficult to execute, since the subject is so humble. Also, I like photographing the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, machine gun shoots in New Hampshire, Bike Week in Daytona Beach. I’m always looking for events that might have something to work with – the Memorial Day Parade in Newtown, Pennsylvania, where I live, has been very good to me, providing both ordinary America and the oddball.
“A ‘Mom and Pop’ restaurant is now a Burger King or Taco Bell. Before, the small restaurant would have created its own image.”
- David Graham
Is a sense of humour important to what you do?
It’s one of the many layers that I like to use when appropriate. I try to load in as many references as possible, if it can be funny too, all the better.
How have the American urban and suburban landscapes changed most since you started?
There has been a huge change since I started with this in 1978-1979. America has really been corporatised. The number of small businesses has seriously dwindled. A ”Mom and Pop" restaurant is now a Burger King or Taco Bell. Before, the small restaurant would have created its own image. Design was also pretty wild in the 1970s and 80s. And cars! They are so boring now. A car could make a photograph in an earlier time. Everything was so extreme; hair, clothing, moustaches… though men’s beards are making an unexpected come back (I had a beard for 19 years!).
David’s exhibition Where We Live: Photographs of the American Home closes today at the Laurence Miller Gallery in New York.
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