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ROAD WORK AHEAD: A study of road photography in Australia, Belinda Hungerford 2010

This 2017 online version of Belinda Hungerford's thesis has been adapted from a copy of Belinda's 2010 thesis as submitted for the degree of Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Art History and Curatorship in the School of Cultural Inquiry, Australian National University; it is not the thesis as submitted and may include amendments and updated information.

Stephe Shore : 2nd Street East and South Main Street, Kalispell, Montana, 1974



The road has been a recurring motif in the cultural landscape of the twentieth century and beyond. Stories and songs of 'hitting the road' evoke notions of adventure and discovery. In such a vast country as Australia, roads are essential in being able to journey this continent. However the road as a cultural motif has not been explored as thoroughly in this country as it has in others.

Relatively few 'road movie' films have been produced here and those that have often depict the road as a dangerous and threatening place, for example Mad Max (1979)1 and Wolf Creek (2005).2 The colourful and emotional Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994)3 is a notable exception. Within literature it is difficult to list novels of the same status as the classic American novel On the Road4 a situation Delia Falconer grappled with in her introduction to The Penguin Book of the Road, concluding that in Australia the road is more often part of other stories than explicitly 'road stories.'5

The tentativeness to fully explore the cultural potentiality of the road in Australian film and literature has also extended to a particular area of the visual arts: photography. The genre of road photography, in terms of a purposeful photographic road trip, has been somewhat underdeveloped. In the exhibition sphere it is the car rather than the road in art that has been brought to attention.6

In America however, the road has featured strongly in photography from the 1930s, beginning with the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers and continuing with later generations such as Robert Frank and Stephen Shore. But despite cultural and geographical similarities between America and Australia,7 as a major theme or genre the road has had a lesser presence in Australian photography.

In America the road has been an inspirational symbol. The dirt road, then the railroad, then the highway system bound areas of continental dimensions into a whole unit for the first time,8 representing the conquering of the frontier. The road has been a means of discovery, Baudrillard claimed that "all you need to know about American society can be gleaned from an anthropology of its driving behaviour...Drive ten thousand miles across America and you will know more about the country than all the institutes of sociology and political science put together."9

British artist David Hockney arrived in America as a non-driver and when he acquired his first car has described with awe the sensation of freedom and adventure associated with hitting the road.10 And most poignantly, the road has symbolised hope, as seen during the Depression when the road seemed to offer a way out and the possibility of a better life, or at least a temporary job, just beyond the next bend in the road.11

The symbolic power of the road is exemplified in the associations Route 66 has engendered. Going by many names - 'The Mother Road,' Main Street America,' The Symbolic River of America' - Route 66 seems to have more cachet than any other highway in the world.12 As such, the road has proved to be an ideal setting and/or tool for storytelling in the arts.

Within the realms of American film and literature the theme of the road is well explored. The road and the journey have a central function in road movies, either in the form of "a moral discourse, a tale of personal development, or as a reflection of society itself."13  The road movie genre took root in American film with titles such as It Happened One Night,14 Bonnie and Clyde,15 Easy Rider16 and Thelma and Louise17.

Generally, car travel in road movies is not merely a means of transportation to a destination; rather the travelling itself is the narrative's primary focus.18 
The journey of the road is a metaphor for the journey of life.

The road also features repeatedly within American literature, often serving as a character of its own. Steinbeck's classic The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939,19 captures the events of the 1930s which the Farm Security Admission commissioned photographers to document. The novel was made into an Academy Award-winning film a year later.20

The most famous written work featuring the road is Jack Kerouac's Beat classic, On the Road, completed in 1951 but not published until 1957. The largely autobiographical book details Kerouac's travels across America with Neal Cassady in the late 1940s and his relationships with other Beat writers and friends.

RoadFrames: the American Highway Narrative21 comprehensively surveys America's fascination with highway travel including the influence of Steinbeck and Kerouac while questioning the literary theme of the road enabling a rediscovering of America.

Artistic circles have also thoroughly explored the visual potential of the road. It has been the subject of dedicated art exhibitions such as On the Road: A Legacy of Walker Evans,22 created around the road photography of Evans and his influence on younger generations of photographers.

Curator Belinda Rathbone drew interesting parallels between the artists' works as well as concepts about the American landscape and her concise catalogue essay provided a succinct overview of the similarities and differences between the photographers.

Road photography also featured in Road Trip, an exhibition which examined the American road trip through a variety of media including photography, video, sculpture, and works on paper. The works explored real and imagined passages often entailing not only a physical displacement but also a psychological and emotional journey.23

In the comprehensive catalogue for Looking In, an exhibition of Robert Frank's The Americans, Luc Sante's essay, 'Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac', details how the road has impacted on and seeped into American arts culture.24 In addition, Marilyn Laufer has extensively investigated the role and perception of photography in the evolution, presentation and re-presentation of the American search for identity in the twentieth century.25

The attention that has been placed on road photography in America has not been repeated in Australia. There has been a lack of critical writing on the road in Australian photographic practice. Standard texts on the history of photography in Australia only include a brief mention if at all.26

Timothy Morrell is one of the few writers who have drawn attention to road photography as a genre in an article focusing on the photographic road trips in New Zealand, British Colombia and Australia but Morrell does not attempt to place the Australian example in the broader context of Australian photography, or more specifically within other Australian road photography. Rather he is more concerned with how the road series relates to other contemporary, international road photography.27

So is there a tradition of road photography in Australia and if so, does it follow the American tradition or has it developed differently? Due to the lack of scholarly literature, this thesis will be an empirical study utilising visual analysis of photographic works, an examination of the surrounding cultural context, in addition to interviews28 with photographers, curators and writers.

Chapter One will provide an overview of the tradition and development of the road in American photography in order to serve as a model in which to compare the road in Australian photographic practice. The mass migration of dustbowl farmers seeking work in the 1930s was documented by FSA commissioned photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans is considered the beginning of American photographers on the road.29

The landmark series of 1959, Robert Frank's The Americans,30 will be shown to be the inheritor of the tradition begun by Lange and Evans. How the road has also been used to explore the vernacular and express personal artistic vision will also be discussed through the work of Lee Friedlander, Edward Ruscha and Stephen Shore.

The next two chapters will consider road photography in Australia. Chapter Two will examine the first sustained Australian road photography series, Wesley Stacey's The Road (1973-75).31  The significance of the road as a motif itself in the series will be analysed in comparison to traditional American road photography. While The Road will be shown to diverge from the American tradition, an American influence has surfaced in more recent Australian road photography.

Chapter Three will explore the contemporary road photography series, Trent Parke's Minutes to Midnight (2003)32 and will be evaluated against both Stacey's series as well as American photography. The nature of road photography in Australia and whether it is an established genre will also be considered in this final chapter.

  1. Mad Max. Dir. George Miller. Kennedy Miller Productions. 1979.
  2. Wolf Creek. Dir. Greg McLean. Australian Film Finance Corporation, 2005.
  3. Priscilla Queen of the Desert Dir. Stephan Elliott. Polygram. 1994.
  4. Jack Kerouac, On the Road (New York: Viking Press), 1957.
  5. Delia Falconer, ed., The Penguin Book of the Road (Camberwell: Penguin), 2008
  6. For example, On the Road: the Car in Australian Art, Museum of Modern Art, Heide, December 11, 1999 - March 20, 2000 and Cars and Culture: Our Driving Passions, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, December 1998 -January 2000.
  7. 7  "U.S.-Australian Relations." U.S. Department of State. Accessed October 13, 2010 and Paul F. Sharp, "Three Frontiers: Some Comparative Studies of Canadian, American, and Australian Settlement," Pacific Historical Review 24, no. 4 (Nov., 1955): 369-377 outline the historical, geographical and cultural similarities between America and Australia, for example settlement, conquering the 'frontier,' democratic values and shared experience such as World War II.
  8. Frederic, L. Paxson, "The Highway Movement," in The American Historical Review 51, no. 2
    (Jan., 1946): 236.
  9. Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1988), 54-55.
  10. David Hockney, David Hackney by David Hackney (New York: Harry N Abrams 1976), 94, 97.
  11. Ron Eyerman and Orvar Lofgren. "Romancing the Road: Road Movies and Images of Mobility." Theory Culture Society 12 (1995): 56-7.
  12. Eyerman and Lofgren, 56.
  13. Eyerman and Lofgren, 60.
  14. It Happened One Night. Dir. Frank Capra. Columbia Pictures. 1934.
  15. Bonnie and Clyde. Dir. Arthur Penn. Warner Brothers/Seven Arts. 1967.
  16. Easy Rider. Dir. Dennis Hopper. Columbia Pictures. 1969.
  17. Thelma and Louise. Dir. Ridley Scott. Metro Goldwyn Mayer. 1991.
  18. David Laderman, Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 13.
  19. John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking Press, 1939.
  20. The Grapes of Wrath. Dir. John Ford. Twentieth Century Fox. 1940.
  21. Kris Lackey, RoadFrames: The American Highway Narrative (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press), 1997.
  22. On the Road: A Legacy of Walker Evans, The Robert Lehman Art Center, Brooks School, North Andover, Massachusetts, April 2 -June 12, 2010. Works exhibited by Walker Evans, Robert Adams, Jeff Brouws, Wendy Burton, William Christenberry, Jim Dow, William Eggleston, Terry Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Frank Gohlke, Jan Groover, Danny Lyon, Joel Meyerowitz, Catherine Opie, Edward Ruscha, Erik Schubert, Stephen Shore, Alec Sloth, Joel Sternfeld, Larry Sultan, George Tice, and Henry Wessel.
  23. Road Trip, exhibited at the San Jose Museum of Art, September 19, 2008 -January 29, 2009.
  24. Luc Sante, "Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac," in Sarah Greenough, Looking In: Robert Frank's 'The Americans' (expanded edition) (Washington: National Gallery of Art/Steidl), 2009.
  25. Marilyn Laufer, "In Search of America: Photography from the road, 1936-1976" (Ph.D. diss., Washington University, 1992).
  26. Gael Newton does include Wesley Stacey's The Road series but as an example of the trend for 'personal documents' in the 1970s and the stylistic development of photography in general. Gael Newton, Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988 (Sydney: Australian National Gallery/Collins, 1988), 140-41. Helen Ennis also includes Wesley Stacey, but not his road series, as well as Trent Parke's photographic road trip but comments on how the imagery debunks the myth of Australia as the 'lucky country' rather than as a specific genre. Helen Ennis, Photography and Australia (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), 106-07.
  27. Timothy Morrell, "Going Nowhere: A Road Trip Through the Photographs of Wesley Stacey, Conor O'Brien and Derek Henderson" in Photofile. no. 76 (Summer, 2005): 56-59.
  28. Human Ethics Protocol was approved by the Australian National University's Chair of Humanities and Social Sciences DERC on August 23, 2010 (Human Ethics Protocol no. 2010/389).
  29. For example, photography reviewer Mark Feeney believes that is the case the exhibition On the Road: A Legacy of Walker Evans makes, "Going where the sings pointed" in The Boston Globe, May 7, 2010,
    (accessed 2 Aug 2010). Laufer also argues the FSA is one of the earliest institutions responsible for the inception of road photography.
  30. Robert Frank. The Americans. New York: Grove Press, 1959.
  31. Wesley Stacey, The Road, a series of 280 Type C colour photographs, each 9.7 x 12.7 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
  32. Trent Parke, Minutes to Midnight, 2003-2004, a portfolio of 30 gelatin silver photographs, each 30.0 x 44.0cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.


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