A 30-Year American Road Trip

It’s summertime, so millions of Americans are gassing up the car, loading up the kids and hitting the highway for that most American of rituals: the road trip. Big skies, roadside attractions and unending byways feature deeply in the national mythology, and in the history of photography, too. For David Graham, exploring the nooks and crannies of this large country has been his life’s work.

Of course, his maiden cross-country voyage wasn’t exactly auspicious.

“I remember that first trip in 1981, going out the Pennsylvania Turnpike in this beat-up VW bus, and I pulled into the left lane and didn’t have the power to pass,” he recalled. “I was stuck between all these tractor-trailers, and they’re blasting their horns. I am freaking out, and I can’t get past them. Can’t pull out. Can’t do anything. Here we are, 30-something years later, and it still is a terrible memory.”

Luckily, he made it to California, where he honed his witty, empathetic style, which developed out of necessity: Film was expensive, and he had little money, so he embedded his pictures with multiple layers of meaning. The resulting images can be seen in a career-spanning exhibition at the Laurence Miller Gallery, through June 26. The photographs depict a broad slice of the country that some might call Americana, although Mr. Graham bristles at the term, believing it to be a coded message for cliché. He prefers to describe pictures as investigations of the American cultural landscape.

Marge. Gapps, Philadelphia. 1979.Credit David Graham, Courtesy of the Laurence Miller Gallery, New York

His personal journey has had a few twists and turns. Like many of us, Mr. Graham took up photography when he discovered he couldn’t draw. A friend returned home from college bearing a sketchbook, and while Mr. Graham was smitten, he knew his limitations. Another photographer was born. He ended up at the Philadelphia College of Art — now called the University of the Arts — studying under Ray Metzker. Mr. Metzker, who died recently, had a great impact on a generation of Philadelphia photographers, and Mr. Graham was no exception.

“We were all trying to be Ray Metzker,” he said. “We had the same kind of camera, the same kind of lens, paper, film and everything. Developer. The works. It was a real influence. I like to jokingly say, though, he forgot to tell us how to make a living. I got out of there and couldn’t do anything but bartend and wait on tables.”

Every great road trip story needs a few coincidences to keep the narrative flowing — like Christie Brinkley popping up poolside in the classic “Vacation” — and Mr. Graham’s tale is no exception. After graduate school, he moved to Newtown, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb just across the Delaware River from New Jersey. While working in a restaurant, tending bar, a colleague, who had himself studied under Walker Evans at Yale, sold him an 8×10 camera that he no longer used.

Around the same time, Mr. Graham was looking at a copy of After Image magazine and noticed a photograph by Emmet Gowin, in which Edith and Elijah Gowin were bathing in a river. It was titled “Newtown, PA.” He rushed to the phone book, looked up Mr. Gowin and realized he was living just down the street.

They became friends, and Mr. Gowin mentored the young photographer. When Mr. Gowin took a sabbatical from his teaching job at Princeton, he was replaced by his friend Jim Dow, who also helped inspire Mr. Graham.

Hallam, Pa. 1989.Credit David Graham, Courtesy of the Laurence Miller Gallery, New York

Mr. Dow, whom Mr. Graham describes as having “Walker Evans’s blood in his veins” as he used to do his printing, had brought with him a trove of slide carousels jammed with images from the history of photography. Mr. Graham spent a year combing through the pictures and emerged with a sense of who he was as an artist and what he wanted to do. To him, what would become a multidecade odyssey across the asphalt ribbons of the country was inevitable (even if that first trip across Pennsylvania was a bear).

Although financial necessity forced him to layer meanings into his frame, so too did his admiration for Mr. Metzker.

“I tried to load as much as possible into each negative,” he said. “I would make photo-historical references, or I would visually comment on resonance between colors, and then shapes and structure that I would have learned from Ray Metzker. Humor was one more thing to put in there. Not every picture had it, but to me, it was a component of the best pictures.”

Through the years, Mr. Graham relied on the radio — from baseball games to programs reciting the price of pork belly futures — to keep him entertained across the many miles. He came to prefer the wide-open spaces of the American West, as the densely packed Eastern landscape made it more difficult to spot potential subjects.

In fact, on his way to Yuma, Ariz., while listening to the classic 1986 World Series between the Mets and the Red Sox, he stumbled upon his most important image. It’s the closing picture in “The History of Dave,” the slide show he occasionally narrates at university lectures.

We see a vast, ochre-hued landscape of buttes and scrub brush. In the foreground, a lonely sign states: “Buy Now, Pay Later.” It seems a perfect a four-word synopsis of capitalism, and our recent Great Recession, as one could hope to capture in celluloid — a harbinger of the Twitter era. (Of course, being thrifty, he shot only one exposure.)

When queried, Mr. Graham agreed that it was emblematic of our current times, although made back when Mookie Wilson’s ground ball trickled between Bill Buckner’s infamous legs.

“Given capitalistic culture, and the late 20th-century, early 21st-century American economy, it’s relevant. It’s been relevant, and it’s going to be relevant. We could think about it also in terms of global warming,” he mused.

“It’s a versatile phrase.”

Jonathan Blaustein / United Photo Press