FotoFest Exhibitions

The Road to Nowhere?

Curated by Natasha Egan



Brian Ulrich
Tim Davis
Greta Pratt
Eirik Johnson
Myra Greene
Sheila Pree Bright
Jeff Brouws
An-My Le
David Oresick

Trevor Paglen

Paul Shambroom
Erika Larsen
Nic Nicosia
Victoria Sambunaris
Christina Seely
Jason Lazarus
Michael Robinson
Greg Stimac
Paul Shambroom, Martin Mace Cruise Missile, Interstate 75 Exit 146, Centerville, Georgia, 2008. Courtesy of the artist

Curatorial statement excerpted from the FotoFest 2010 Biennial Catalogue

Photography has a long history of reflecting in a documentary way, or questioning in an artistic way, the zeitgeist. Among some of the most remarkable examples in twentieth-century U.S. photography would be such photographers as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and forty-one other now highly regarded photographers who set out between 1936 and 1946 to make the economic crisis public under the U.S. Farm Security Administration. In the mid-fifties Swiss photographer Robert Frank famously exposed a racially divided America in his 1958 book The Americans. In the 1960s photographers such as Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander emerged observing daily life and analyzing a populace hidden beneath the idealized surface of the era. This period also brought innovators in color photography like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, who challenged the tradition that saw black and white work as the only serious photography for social observation. The 1970s brought photographers like Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and Frank Gohlke, who, like Friedlander, produced unromantic descriptions of the American landscape, both social and physical, but with a more a direct concern for environmentalism, a questioning of capitalism, and an interest in national identity. The Reagan era was illustrated strikingly by Tina Barney’s portraits of the American wealthy. And the 1990s explosion of unbridled American consumerism was quintessentially documented by German artist Andreas Gursky in his large, complex images of endless rows of Nike shoes and garishly illuminated tiers of candy.

The geopolitical and economic tumult in the fi rst decade of the new millennium, regarded by some as the close of the “American Century,” has similarly left its signature on contemporary U.S. photography. Each of the eighteen photographers in the exhibition The Road to Nowhere? makes work that, while revisiting enduring American themes, calls into question the actual trajectory of our long-term national projects. In the short span of fewer than ten years, the profound self-confidence of the late 1990s has been displaced by extreme anxiety about the fundamental economic instabilities and environmental degradations wrought by unfettered capitalism. America’s celebrated “unipolar moment” increasingly appears to have been just that, a moment, whose tranquil triumphalism was soon pierced by the September 11 attacks, the ensuing complicated military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the spectacular implosion of the country’s financial system. A belief in the seeming unassailability of the U.S. model among even the mainstream population has now given way to a sense of vulnerability as unemployment rises and as broad-based participation in the country’s rising prosperity increasingly appears to have been illusory, resting on a credit-induced property bubble.

Like the photographers working in earlier decades, the majority of the artists in The Road to Nowhere? might usefully be thought of as “cultural documentarians,” defined here as those taking an artistic approach—whether objective or subjective—to understanding a particular society and culture, in this case the United States of America. Some manage this emphasis on U.S. life with directness and others with irony or humor. Through photography and video, they address a diversity of related themes including economic insecurity, race, war, and the contemporary American landscape. While the work is oftentimes critical, a quintessentially American optimism is evident throughout.

Natasha Egan
Associate Director and Curator, Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago

This exhibition made possible by FotoFest 2010 Biennial Sponsors, Winter Street Studios and John Deal. Special recognition goes to ROMA Moulding for providing framing for the FotoFest 2010 Biennial.