Half-week homework: Roads

A road resplendent, stretching sanguinely into the horizon, exerts a pull as haunting as it is hypnotic. It’s not a uniquely American image—roads have been around as long as there have been static destinations to which one might go—but it’s a foundational image to our mythology of open spaces; a vision of opportunity, danger, and the wild West of which Colorado and California are forever a part. The road speaks an old language in whispers which frighten and entice, in singing that energizes and repels. Your mission, this week, is to use your camera to transcribe some part of that song.

A peculiar complication in making the road your photographic subject is the inherent secondary subject. A really effective photograph requires balancing the composition of the static scene—the road as it is, where it is—with the influence of all that the road implies. Though itself unmoving, its purpose is so singular and its form so suggestive (the definition of “leading lines”) that a sense of motion and an invisible overlay of the imagined destination’s emotional impact are unavoidable, and thus must be controlled.

Using an explicit destination is one way to control its impact. The Wizard of Oz, with its famous allegorical path, illustrates the phenomenon beautifully—let’s call it the Yellow Brick Road effect. Knowing that the Emerald City (and, therefore, the Wizard) lies at one end, every image of the Yellow Brick Road is automatically interpreted through that lens. Shots of the road with the Emerald City in the distance are an integral part of the way the movie communicates the progress of the main characters, and still images to that effect evoke a sense of progress towards a goal, a honing-in on a specific destination. (This can be positive, negative, or a mixture of both. A photo with your childhood home as the destination would create a positive version of this effect. The path to the gates at Dachau provides a decidedly negative, though powerful, effect. Our Oz example demonstrates how dramatic irony can be incorporated into an image by contrasting the characters’ hopeful vision of the Emerald City and the true disappointment of the Wizard.) Conversely, a view of the Yellow Brick Road from the perspective of the Emerald City evokes the opposite sense of movement: a sense of setting out into a big ol’ world, of trading an orderly world for a wild, untamed one.

Even if your origin and/or destination are not immediately obvious to the casual observer, it’s important that you consider the Yellow Brick Road effect when composing your photo. A focal subject in the foreground suggests an origin, giving the viewer a sense of leaving, whereas a subject in the distance is framed as a destination and will suggest arriving (or at least motion towards instead of away from). Compare the following photos to see what I mean.

Ignore for the moment the images of every Western movie you’ve ever seen, which are undoubtedly running through your mind, and consider the technical composition of the picture. I’ve left very little in the foreground (certainly nothing of interest) and have a very clear subject in the distance, the effect being a sense of motion towards those magnificent rock formations. The effect is enhanced by the slope of the road, exerting an illusionary force of gravity on the mind. The “movement” is undoubtedly a huge part of why this view of the valley is so iconic.

On the other hand, look at the way putting a subject in the foreground with no clear focus further down the road illustrates “going away from.” The eye moves from the concrete world of the foreground to the formless one further away. Of course, I’m double-dipping with this example, because it’s also demonstrating how shooting with a reference point that makes it clear that the road in the photo has already been traversed (the line of my truck’s camper shell) produces an entirely different effect than that of “road which lies ahead.”

Another unique conceptual complication to the imagery of roads is that, in order to have any use, they need to be connected to others. In fact, almost every road in a given country—maybe even continent?—is theoretically traceable to every other. This can be used to suggest a sense of connection or universal brotherhood, if that’s your thing, but it also means that any disruption to the connection is noteworthy and contains the potential to illustrate a statement or story.

Absolute ends (like the one above) can be evocative precisely because they go nowhere. This particular image raises a few questions: did the road ever go somewhere, or is it going to go somewhere in the future? (Parallel questions: is this the site of a past tragedy, or a future celebration?) Is it merely stuck in a sort of public-works purgatory, half started in case it made future building easier? The smooth leading lines of the road are rudely interrupted, dislocating expectations and imbuing your image with a rich sense of discomfort that requires active engagement on the part of your audience.

Speaking of disrupting expectations, don’t lose sight of the details of the road in the face of the grandeur of the Road. If you can do so safely, change your perspective and get up close and personal with the physical roadway. Paint (fresh or worn with patterns impossible to imitate), grooves, cracks, garbage, and more await the artist’s touch to become something greater than their physical selves and explicit purposes allow. Bring a macro lens and an open mind!

Better writers than I have said much more on the subject, but I hope I’ve sufficiently communicated the rich complexity of the song of the road to get you started on your own photographic quest to add to the ongoing transcription of its wordless lyrics and tuneless melodies. Next time you find yourself alone on a beautiful stretch of back-woods highway, take the time to pull over and listen.

Much like the way disconnected roads aren’t much use, photos with no viewers don’t do much good. Don’t forget to share your favorite results with me and with your fellow photographers, especially if you feel like you grew as a photographer in some way! Post them to our Facebook page or Instagram tagged with #mymikescamera #halfweekhomework so we can all learn together.

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