Since Kerouac wrote it as scripture, the cross-country road trip has become rite of passage for young Americans, the cultural baptism of a nation. For New York City-based photographer Noah Emrich, a 12,000-mile loop around the United States, which he made in the summer of 2013, could be described as a test of faith.
“It was weird, almost surreal,” says Emrich of his voyage, documented in a series of photographs for his new book Bountiful ($35), available for purchase through Done to Death Projects. “A lot of the time it was just me driving through places I would probably never pass again,” he says. “These towns — no matter if they were on the West Coast or the East, or in the Midwest — all had a similar melancholy to them. Many times all I would find was a liquor store and a Dollar General.”
Emrich grew up in Massachusetts, “in a town that straddles a balance between rural and suburban,” he says. Often during summers he would spend time with his grandparents in Kansas and Minnesota. “It was seeing the differences between where my grandparents lived versus where I lived that made me interested in traveling.”
For his cross-country sojourn, Emrich borrowed his parents’ green Toyota Sienna, packing it with his collection of analog cameras (a Mamiya 645, Pentax SLR, Canon SLR and an Olympus point and shoot) and a few extra rolls of Kodak Portra film. He stayed with friends as often as he could and often camped in national forests and parks. “I only spent three nights in hotels,” he says, “and one of the was the Hooters hotel in Vegas.”
Viewing the photographs of Bountiful as a series, themes of alienation and emptiness become apparent, with visual cues pointing towards the Other: vast and vacant flatlands, motel signs missing letters, dirt roads leading nowhere. “Knowing nothing of the place or it people lends itself to seeing them as disconnected from yourself,” says Emrich. In his photos of other people, the subjects’ faces are hidden, often staring into the distance. In this way, Emrich is an observer of observers — mostly other tourists, cameras in hand, themselves in search of something to capture.
The project’s name came about after Emrich passed though Bountiful, Colorado. “It was a very small town,” he says. “There wasn’t much there – a grain silo, a national park ranger office and a white horse tied next to the train tracks. At the time, it would not even show up on Google Maps if you searched for it.”
“It spoke to how we think optimistically about the United States as a bountiful place,” says Emrich, “a place rich with natural splendor, resources and ripe with opportunity. It is the same idea that is also assumed in the notion of the American Dream. I thought about it a lot when I was on my trip. I would ask myself, ‘Does the dream still apply? Did it ever?‘”