Picks and Pans Review: Only in America
Photographs by David Graham
Who says Americans have no sense of history? Right in Niles, Ill., is a water tower that’s a dead ringer for the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In East Los Angeles a mini Eiffel Tower peers nobly down from the roof of a cocktail lounge. In Cocoa Beach, Fla., a small green Statue of Liberty lifts her lamp beside the Sea Missile Motel.
Graham immortalizes these and other roadside attractions in his second peripatetic book of color photographs. A bond with history does not, in the end, seem to be the motivating force behind these novelties. A bond with the passing motorist, a dauntless desire to ensnare the fleeting attention of someone whizzing by at 65 mph—that may be more like it.
In Graham’s artful photographs, the outlandishness of the American roadside is the byproduct of the merchant’s appeal to what works. It’s an appeal to the kid in all of us—the kid who wants to stop at the coffee shop in the shape of a coffee pot, the paint store with an entrance in the shape of a paint can.
If these places are corny, they’re rarely cynical; they are personal creations, as sincere as they are naive. It takes a kid to charm a kid. The way kids show off what’s theirs, what they’ve made, who they are—that ingenuous spirit animates the wonderful eyesores Graham has uncovered.
Finding them was only half the battle. We’ve all gone “Wow!” hit the brakes, snapped a picture and later tossed it in a drawer because it didn’t look like much. It’s not just the difference between a pocket autofocus and sophisticated equipment. (Ken Heyman’s 1988 book of astonishing action photographs was shot with an autofocus camera.) If Graham were only saying, “Hey, there’s a gas station in Oregon with an old B-17 on top of it,” his pictures would be flat and obvious, too.
Graham’s pictures remind us how important framing and vantage point are to photography. Where he stands, what he includes—the context expands the picture’s reach visually as well as socially. He is as sensitive to color, form and pictorial rhythm as he is to topography, culture and human nature. He takes subtle pictures of un-subtle things. (Knopf, $35)