New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 17 April 17 to 23, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

On The Road
Thomas Hoepker
Heartland: An American Road Trip in 1963
Ed Barnas

Photo by Thomas Hoepker . Source:
Thomas Hoepker, "San Francisco, An old lady rides on a float with the American flag during a Fourth of July parade in downtown." 1963.
In 1957 Jack Kerouac’s celebration of restless energy in On the Road appeared, followed in 1958 by the somewhat darker imagery of Robert Frank’s The Americans, to which Kerouac himself wrote the preface to the 1959 US edition. And in 1963 Thomas Hoepker, then a young photographer in his 20’s, got an assignment to spend two months criss-crossing the US with a writer for the German bi-weekly magazine Kristall.

Sixty-eight photographs from Hoepker’s trip appeared the following year in a series of articles in Kristall. Relatively unknown in the US until recently, a number of them show Walker Evan’s influence in images of signs, storefronts, and billboards (with one massed layering of road signs near Reno appearing to presage the New Topographics of the 70’s). Many of Hoepker’s images comment on Frank’s work, offering a slightly different, mostly lighter but sometimes darker, take. The arrow motif from Los Angeles is echoed in an Alabama parking garage. Frank’s dark memorial images are echoed in empty chairs and funerary statues in California. Hoepker photographs a lunch counter but includes a clown in full makeup among the diners. He also photographs a dead woman on the street in Harlem, but she lays uncovered, unlike the victim in Frank’s “Car Accident, Route 66.” But unlike the off-kilter angles of Frank’s photos, Hoepker’s images are well framed and exposed.

Photo by Thomas Hoepker . Source:
Thomas Hoepker, "Reno Nevada, A Clown at a lunch counter" 1963.
Presenting a view of the American Heartland less gloomy than that offered earlier by Frank, this suite of photographs still recognizes underlying problems within the culture. While Hoepker’s brief was an in-depth photo essay, not spot news, elements of that complacent and turbulent era appear throughout. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum; yet there is only one NAACP protest image while there are several of sharecropper shacks in the South (and an image of a white warily observing a Black passing on the street in Montgomery). Though the war in Vietnam was still relatively small, there are images of veterans (including a legless Korean War veteran on the street) and others of children playing war games with toy guns (making me recall Arbus image of the boy with the toy grenade). When JFK was assassinated during the road trip, the news appears in the headline of a paper read by a cab driver beneath Las Vegas neon. JFK’s ensuing beatification is noted in icons of him next to those of the Madonna in a souvenir shop. Capturing the pervasiveness of the early 60s gun culture, a more striking image shows a father and son visiting JFK’s grave in the snow, with the father holding the boy’s toy rifle.

Having seen several other shows where prints were displayed above vitrines containing the magazine publications, I would have liked to see Hoepker’s photos in their original layout and context.

Thomas Hoepker
Heartland: An American Road Trip in 1963

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