One day last May, five Magnum photographers and a writer piled into an RV dubbed “Uncle Jackson” in Austin, Texas, and embarked on a two-week, nearly 2,000-mile road trip to California. Their goal: to document both the Southwest and improvise ways to work collaboratively. So for Alec Soth, the metaphor for the trip he undertook with photographers Paolo Pellegrin, Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, and Mikhael Subotzky, and writer Ginger Strand was both “road trip” and “band tour.”
Describing the resulting project, Postcards from America, Soth says, “If we function like a band, and go off on little jam sessions of two or three and sort of communicate the spirit of that collaboration: that’s what this project is for me.”
The results include solo investigations of topics such as gun culture and sex trafficking and collaborations that include Subotzky and Goldberg shooting the same place from two perspectives, or Soth and Strand sharing a tale about hydro infrastucture that nearly ended up with Soth gored by an African antelope.
But the endeavor also fits well into the well-established genre of the road trip, which is where the project gets its title.
“The reason I like ‘postcards,’” says Soth, “is that it’s a thing you send while traveling to communicate that you’re traveling. It’s as much about the writing on the back, saying we did this, as it is about the waterfall that you photographed.”
Here’s a first look at the project.
An edition of 500, the project features photographic and literary documentation of a road trip Jim Goldberg, Paolo Pellegrin, Susan Meiselas, Alec Soth, Mikhael Subotzky, and Ginger Strand took throughout the American southwest in May 2011.
The project is presented in a numbered box that includes a book, a selection of bumper stickers, a newspaper, two fold-outs, three cards, a poster and five zines. Walker designer Michael Aberman, who designed Postcards with Walker design director Emmet Byrne, says the type choices evoke both the feeling of antique broadsheets and, through the variation between modern and classic typefaces, the diversity of the photographers’ styles and of America itself.
A renowned photojournalist whose early work featured carnival strippers, Susan Meiselas took photographs on the trip that focused on sex trafficking along the US/Mexico border. “It’s all about her looking for places to find prostitutes,” says Soth. “We’d drop into these towns and there wouldn’t be that much time. She’d meet with the policemen, trying to get information. There was a certain amount of frustration on her part. This thing is sort of a document of her frustration.”
Meiselas’ handwritten text accompanying one of the shots refers to the all-male group of photographers she was traveling with: “The boys on the bus are mad at me. They want me to climb over the walls and take pictures of what’s on the other side. They don’t understand the walls are part of of what I need to document. The walls are what I see and they don’t.”
Keeping with the traveling band metaphor, Alec Soth and his collaborators conceived of a glossy portfolio of images that’s the centerpiece of the project. Unbound, the folded posters present pairings of photographers’ works, such as Jim Goldberg’s (at left) juxtaposed with Soth’s.
“The thing about documentary photography is all of us, to various degrees, question its truth value,” Soth says. “We all struggle with what it means to be a documentary photographer. Someone like Paolo Pellegrin is 100 percent in the photojournalism world. I’m in the art world. Jim is in the art world. Susan [Meiselas, whose work is featured here] is sort of in between, but she’s sort of famous for questioning her own practices. So we’re questioning what we’re doing all the time: ‘What are we photographing? Why are we photographing it?’”
Shot by Soth in Las Vegas, this photo is staged: “She was aware of me. I wasn’t peeping, but it has the quality of peeping.”
Shooting at the same site on the same day—San Felipe Springs, Texas, May 14, 2011—Mikhael Subotzky and Jim Goldberg packaged their resulting photos in a single publication, each with a cover referencing the other and personal writings on what they encountered.
Mikhael Subotzky’s accompanying text sets up the premise of the experiment: “Everyone spotted the kids and families playing by the river as we rolled into Del Rio on the bus. Jim and I decided to go there to make pictures. Jim went left. I went right.” The first people he encountered were a group of children fishing.
Paolo Pellegrin documented guns and their users. The publication includes a zine featuring isolated hanguns shot against a black background inside gun shops, and this portrait of a gun owner, which is featured in the project’s “greatest hits” piece.
Fitting the road trip theme, Jim Goldberg’s shots of signage along the journey’s route are reproduced in Postcards from America as a series of bumperstickers.
The group created some multimedia content for the project, including an audio slideshow recorded during a visit to fellow Magnum photographer Chris Anderson’s home in San Antonio, where an uncle recounted a story, to howls of delight by other members of the family. Soth says there was some debate about whether to include multimedia material with the project in the form of a thumbdrive loaded with content. Wanting to keep the project analogue, they opted for printing URLs to the project’s Vimeo account on appropriate pages.
In El Paso, Alec Soth accompanied Ginger Strand on a project that aimed to further her interest in water issues. “‘You are the lead, I’m the follower,’ I told her,” recalls Soth. The resulting story, presented as an illustrated booklet, wends a cohesive but wide-ranging tale about hydro-infrastructure, a family named Fountain, and an oryx encountered along the way.
“It’s kind of an incredible story about how we ran into this thing, and I almost got killed by it,” Soth says. “It charged me. It’s hysterical. It was unbelievable.”
Their complete story is published here.
Each copy of Postcards from America comes with a large-scale reproduction of a shot Pellegrin took on the trip, presented in 64 pieces (some assembly required).