Hold these words in your imagination: Elegant. Clear. Provocative. Nostalgic. I am trying to find the right words to describe Highway 61: Photographs by Jessica Lange. In so many ways, this is exactly what every book of photography aspires to become.
Compelling. Dreamy. Hard. Inspiring. The idea here is classic. The project takes us on a road trip down Highway 61, from Grand Marias in Minnesota to New Orleans. The book’s jacket says: “Lange was raised in Northern Minnesota and has travelled the length of Highway 61 countless times since her childhood and throughout her life.” Lange herself writes, “These photographs are a chronicle of what remains and what has disappeared. It has a long memory, Highway 61.” The photographs are not a record of one epic trip, but rather a narrative. Each turn of the page takes us farther south on the highway. Each turn of the page takes us a bit deeper into the story of home.
Historic. Loving. Familial. Honest. The book is elegant in its design. Every photograph is on the right hand page. Verso is blank, except for a very small page number. Open the book at the beginning, or anywhere, and the image is all you get. The image is everything you get. It’s large on the page. There is no text with the images, no captions or dates or apologies or claims. Just an old woman looking in a supermarket cooler. Just some guy sitting by himself in a café with checkered tablecloths. Just a mechanic in his shop. Just a cook in a café. Just some billboard under a contrailed sky.
Each photograph is black and white (the jacket says tritone). Most of the photographs are grainy with some element of blur or haze. Every photograph has a smudged black border to give it the impression of age. It’s as if Lange has perfected a way to photograph memory. Actually, I take that back. Forget the “It’s as if.”
Pleasant. Deep. Heartwood. Highway 61 is insistently rural. The road itself is no Interstate Highway, and the images are county fairs, small town cafes, repair shops, old motels, farm animals, dogs, children, blue collars and weather. If you’ve ever read E. B. White’s essay Once More to the Lake or listened to J. Unger’s “Ashokan Farewell”, you know the spirit of Highway 61. There is in nostalgia an element of hope and even the hardest or saddest photograph here holds some expression of hope. Look at the little girl on a rodeo horse. Look at the riverboat or the guy standing by railroad tracks. Perhaps Lange’s hope is only that a memory of them will persist. But isn’t the desire for memory the strongest desire? And when every other argument has come and gone, isn’t photography finally a hope for memory?
Persistent. Hopeful. Old. The book is physically large but comfortable to hold in a deep, old chair. A large book here means large images, each of them inviting an unrushed conversation. One of the things I love about this book is the confidence that the images can stand alone. Yes, I know this isn’t possible with other genres of photography—conflict photography, for instance—but if the image is subject instead of example, then let it be what it is.
In her brief epilogue, Lange writes, “Highway 61 is almost 1600 miles long and passes through eight states. When it rolls along the Mississippi it is called the Great River Road. When it heads south out of Memphis through the ancient floodplains of the Delta it becomes known as the Blues Highway—home to some of the great blues singers of the last century, many of whom recorded songs about 61…Long stretches of 61 are empty, forlorn, as if in mourning for what has gone missing—the hometowns, the neighborhoods, family farms, factories, and mills. Even the strip malls have failed. Stores all boarded up, weeds growing through the asphalt of countless vacant parking lots. Some of the people left, creating a ghostly beauty in their leave-taking. Some remain, perhaps yearning for that more vibrant past but reluctant to abandon the place called home. If, as Roland Barthes says, ‘every photograph is a certificate of presence,’ then these photographs are a chronicle of what I witnessed along and near High 61. It has been a long drive, wrapped in my story.”
There is, in the back pages, a list of where the photographs were taken, but only by state. No city or county names. No dates. The intent is to focus on the moment of capture and the world of story hiding in that one sixtieth of a second. There are only 84 pictures in the book, and a world in every one. Remarkable. Unexpected. Necessary.