About - Jim Dow Photography (2024)

[Nostalgia]- I hate that word . … To be nostalgic is to be sentimental. To be interested in what you see that is passing out of history, even if it is a trolley car that you have found, that is not an act of nostalgia.

– Walker Evans

In 1976, as U.S. citizens commemorated the American Bicentennial, Jim Dow expressed his concerns about the nation’s misguided efforts to celebrate a heritage that excluded individualized vernacular expression in favor of outmoded conservative traditions:

“As Bicentennial fever rages, historical societies abound, ladies put up plaques on one another’s houses, dedicate malls and post descriptive graphic displays outside churches. But, to me, that misses the point. This is the land where “mass culture” started, and it has also seemed to me that the greatest ingenuity and flair, in the sense of everyday people, has usually gone into commercial or individual communication; a sign, a façade, a gazebo for the customers to cool their heels in. To me this is more alive, more intrinsically worthwhile than all the official architecture, outstanding classical examples and historic spots. It is what we are surrounded by [and marks a period] when times were, a bit less corporate, … and many individuals’ creativity and cleverness … displayed.” (1)

The statement encapsulates Dow’s personal motivation to photograph material fragments of mass culture-the vernacular architecture, signage, and commercial billboards that constituted “the American road scape” – that he encountered along old U.S. highways on various cross-country road trips between 1967 and 1977.(2) Compelled by subjects that convey a unique sense of human spirit and industry, Dow produced this body of work in black and white, working extensively with an 8- by 10-inch Deardorff camera, which afforded detailed clarity and required careful, considered looking. (3) Dow’s photographs crystallized the didactic messages of his subjects by isolating specific details of image and text so that they appear unmoored from their immediate surroundings. More often than not, his subjects bear the marks of time’s passage, evident in the weather-worn surfaces, outdated cliches, and stereotyped imagery that prevailed in mid-twentieth-century American consumer culture but had begun to deteriorate in the shifting socioeconomic and political landscape of the early 1970s.

About - Jim Dow Photography (1)

The desire to look closely at “what we are surrounded by” owed a clear and acknowledged debt to Walker Evans, whose work Dow grew to know intimately between 1969 and 1971 while printing from Evans’s negatives in preparation for a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.(4 ) This exhibition, curated by John Szarkowski, affirmed the significance of Evans’s achievement for a new generation of photographers, who had come to know his work largely through reproductions in two books, American Photographs and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.(5) Evans’s sophisticated embrace of vernacular American subject matter and straightforward, descriptive application of the medium were revelations for Dow. “My idea of photography at the time;’ he said, “was cross cuts of cabbages, naked ladies by the sea, rotting junk in the sun, prettiness, formality, people in the street looking stupid or mean …. I had never before seen pictures that could be read, could stand up to long-term scrutiny. To me, the spare sharpness, the reserve and respect due the subjects were magic:’ (6)

Evans’s “documentary-style” approach, as he came to define it in the early 1970s, held an appeal for young artists like Dow, who sought meaning in the era of Vietnam, Watergate, and the media-saturated,increasingly corporate social landscape. (7) In a public talk delivered to students at the University of Michigan in October 1971, Evans speculated that this way of working was a more honest approach to picturemaking than those encountered in advertising, journalism, or even certain precedents in fine art photography. “What your generation is interested in is honesty, much to your credit;’ Evans insisted. “You’ve been lied to so much that you are damn well going to have something honest for a change, and this style seems honest … it wasn’t always so, but it seems so. It is possible to express yourself graphically with a camera, honestly, naturally, more so perhaps than another media.”(8)

The artistic endeavor that Evans proposed offered a viable alternative to prevailing skepticism about the integrity of image making in post-World War II American culture. As historians and theorists such as Marshall McLuhan and Daniel J. Boorstin asserted in the early 1960s, images as sources of information had become highly suspect. They were best understood within the context of mass media and its mechanisms and should be critically scrutinized as vehicles of accurate reporting. Boorstin, more strongly than McLuhan, felt that American society had lost its moral compass. In his book The Image: A Guide to PseudoEvents in America, he criticized the shallow pursuit of fame for its own sake, excoriated television and newspapers for offering sensationalized so-called news as entertainment, and defined this regrettable phenomenon as the perpetuation of “pseudo-events:’ McLuhan, in his groundbreaking study Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, assumed a more observational tone, famously postulating that the content of a message is inevitably shaped by the technological medium used to express it. In fact, as he argued, the two were inseparable: “the medium is the message.”(9) Though the cultural stage from which Evans spoke was modest by comparison, he sought to assure young photographers that pictures could be made without pretension or political agendas and still have a profound impact in the age of mass-media fabrication. This desire to see and express subjects honestly in photographs, without nostalgic sentimentality or ironic condescension, resonated deeply with Dow.

Evans’s precedent underscored the importance of observing the built social landscape, a subject that had also been gaining both credibility and popularity among architectural theorists since the late 1950s. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, often credited with establishing the field of landscape studies, founded the journal Landscape, editing and publishing it from 1951 to 1968. At first a free promotional publication, the magazine quickly attracted subscribers from a variety of disciplines and included an international array of authors, who explored various aspects of land use and the built environment. As he proclaimed in the first issue, Jackson believed that “there is really no such thing as a dull landscape …. None is without character, no habitat of man is without the appeal of the existence which originally created it:'(10) Jackson, who began teaching at Berkeley and Harvard in 1969, establishing courses in cultural landscape history, was teaching at Harvard when Dow first began as a part-time instructor in the Visual and Environmental Studies Department there.(11)

The architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and their students at the Yale School of Art and Architecture also embraced the vernacular landscape during the late 1960s and early 1970s, making an extensive study of the commercial strip in Las Vegas and publishing their findings in Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. The research and writing garnered both praise and criticism for its unapologetic embrace of “a new type of urban form emerging in America and Europe, radically different from what we have known; one that we have been ill-equipped to deal with and that, from ignorance, we define today as urban sprawl:’ (12) With their proclamations that “billboards are almost alright [sic]” and their avoidance of moral judgment, Venturi and Brown convincingly asserted that parking lots, strip malls, drive-in churches, and gambling casinos were as worthy of serious study as were Gothic cathedrals and Renaissance palazzos.

About - Jim Dow Photography (2)

In this spirit of embracing the legitimacy and significance of the everyday built environment, Dow found compelling subjects in the facades of diners, details of billboards, remnants of abandoned ice-cream stands, the hand-painted signs of burger joints, pool halls,roller rinks, drive-in theatres, and gas stations, and the religious exhortations on roadside structures that lined the old U.S. highways. Here he would discover evidence of the “ingenuity and flair” of “everyday people “that more often than not was in the process of disappearing into cultural obsolescence. For a young, liberally minded photographer coming of age in an era of questionable facts and government deception, artifacts rooted in American vernacular culture of an earlier era but now quickly disappearing from public consciousness represented a certain authenticity. In the straightforward earnestness of their messages and their often handcrafted design, Dow found subjects worthy of respect: “this stuff … should be recorded, and recorded sympathetically with an eye not so much to damning it but more to trying to show that it has, or had, strong roots in things and senses that we believe to be ‘good: (13)

Dow was born July 26, 1942, in Boston, the only child of James D. Dow II and Ruth Whitney Barrett. 14 His parents were Ivy League educated intellectuals whose love of each other and shared passion for political discussion, music, and literature shaped his childhood and adolescence and informed his political and literary sensibilities. In their liberal household in Belmont, Massachusetts, dinners were accompanied by candles and wine and often shared with academic friends and colleagues, who enjoyed lively debates about current events, such as the McCarthy hearings, polio, and fears about the hydrogen bomb and”the red scare.” The Dows, whose left-leaning politics were at odds with those of many of their neighbors, sent their son to the Cambridge School of Weston, a private, progressive high school with a roster of diverse international faculty and students. (15)

A self-described “mediocre” student, who enjoyed drawing, early R&B music, and sports, Dow decided to attend art school rather than university, believing, erroneously, that it would prove easier than academia. Though his parents were not overly excited about their son’s decision, they accepted and eventually supported it. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) as an undergraduate from 1961 to 1965, studying graphic design with Alexander Nesbitt, Ilse Buchert, and Malcolm Grear, who became a friend and mentor. Dow also took two required introductory classes with Harry Callahan, who led the photography department at RISD from 1961 to 1976. Dow immediately liked Callahan, whose humble demeanor encouraged his students to discover and pursue their own interests rather than follow a preconfigured formula for success. With Callahan’s advocacy, Dow was accepted into the MFA program at RISD in photography, from which he graduated in 1968. 16 From Callahan, Dow acquired the basic technical skills required to operate a large-format camera and produce black-and-white. prints. Perhaps more significantly, however, he absorbed the lesson that graduating from art school did not automatically make one an artist; such status came from devoting oneself to the daily work of making pictures. Callahan’s renowned work ethic and dedication to the rigors of picture taking left a deep impression, as did his professor’s generosity and earnest regard for his students’ well-being. (17)

During his time at RISD, Dow found comfort and camaraderie in his close friendships with faculty and fellow students and their partners, relationships that functioned much like extended family at a difficult time in his life. In the fall of 1965, in Dow’s first semester of graduate coursework, his mother died suddenly and tragically after being hit by a bus. Dow’s father was also ill with prostate cancer, which would take his life four years later, in 1969. (18) Dow was especially close with one of his photography instructors, Richard Lebowitz, and his wife Edith, both of whom had wide-ranging intellectual interests and were well read in history and politics. Dow admired the radical political views held by his fellow graduate students Walter Rabetz and Murray Riss and Murray’s wife Ellie and was close friends with Bart Parker and his wife Yvonne, who joined Dow for portions of several road trips (fig.1), as did Robert Richfield. Ed Sievers, who had moved to Venice, California, after graduation, and John McWilliams, who lived in the Atlanta area and became a lifelong friend, welcomed Dow to stay with them during his cross-country travels. Many of these relationships evolved naturally into a mutually supportive professional network during the early 1970s, as university photography programs were expanding and job opportunities arose.

About - Jim Dow Photography (3)

Emmet Gowin, who was a year ahead of Dow in graduate school, and his wife, Edith (fig. 2), also became (and have remained) close friends. On his many road trips through the South, Dow often visited Danville, Virginia, where the Gowins would spend every summer with Edith’s extended family, the beloved subjects of Gowin’s photographs from this period. Gowin accompanied Dow on several early ventures in Virginia between 1966 and 1968, including trips through Fredericksburg and South Boston, where Dow photographed the facades of a double-frame house (plate 1) and a floor and carpet business (fig. 3).

During Dow’s first semester of graduate school in the fall of 1965, he was invited by the artist Dieter Roth, another early mentor, to New Haven to meet Walker Evans, whom Roth described as a “socialist photographer who uses glass plates.'(19) Though Dow knew little about Evans’s achievements at the time, he vividly recalls the setting of their first rendezvous: the murky, smoke-filled interior of the Old Heidelberg bar (fig. 4), located in the basem*nt of Hotel Duncan and a favorite haunt for Evans since he began teaching at Yale in 1964. Dow soaked up the atmosphere, his admiration for the photographer’s curiosity and intellect decidedly piqued. Upon his return to RISD, John McWilliams showed him a copy of Evans’s American Photographs. Dow “was hooked.”(20)

His relationship with Evans intensified through a connection fostered by Peter Bunnell and John Szarkowski, respectively the curator and the director of photography at MoMA. Bunnell, whom Dow had gotten to know around 1968 when he and Emmet Gowin would visit the print-study room at the museum, was a resource during the early shaping of Dow’s graduate thesis on Walker Evans.(21) Through Bunnell, Dow met Szarkowski, who was then planning a retrospective exhibition of the work of Walker Evans and needing someone to make modern prints. After a few initial trials that proved Dow a worthy printer, Szarkowski trusted him to work directly from Evans’s negatives. (22) From 1969 through 1972, Dow traveled regularly from Belmont to Old Lyme, Connecticut, and New York City, often adjusting his schedule to accommodate issues associated with Evans’s fragile health and enduring the older photographer’s personal peccadilloes. (23) The opportunity to immerse himself in the darkroom with Evans’s images had a profound influence. Dow, who had inherited a modest sum of money from his father’s estate that kept him solvent for a few years, could afford this opportunity to build his experience and knowledge. Though he was not paid directly for his labor, the work earned Dow recommendations for subsequent grants, fellowships, and job opportunities.

About - Jim Dow Photography (5)

Several of his earliest photographs from this period, made on trips South in 1967 and 1968, bear a close resemblance to the photographs that Evans had taken in the 1930s, while he was working for the Farm Security Administration. Dow’s view of an abandoned store along GA 99 in Ridgeville, Georgia, with its advertisem*nts for Hires root beer, 7-Up, Dixi Cola, and Coca-Cola (plate 2), is directly comparable to the sign-plastered facade of Evans’s rustic Roadside Store between Tuscaloosa and Greensboro, Alabama, with its neatly placed advertisem*nts for Coca-Cola, Clabber Girl Baking Powder, Grove’s Chill Tonic, and other palliatives (fig. 5). Dow readily acknowledged his early penchant for producing Evans-like images, as well as his recognition that he needed to find his own aesthetic: “I had to find what it was that I wanted to take pictures of, what was mine and what was not. Like most, I began copying.”(24)

About - Jim Dow Photography (6)

There seemed little time to make his own photographs. Though he regularly scanned the landscape through his car windows as he drove around New England and New York, he often kept driving, making notes in his journal to return with his camera. One particularly charming sign eventually proved irresistible: in 1971 he photographed a gigantic replica of a bowling pin pierced with an arrow, which was situated alongside a stretch of US 1 near Branford, Connecticut (plate 4). Other subjects that attracted his attention included a tin wall with a painted arrow in Wilmington, Massachusetts; the faulty letters of a window display advertising a dance studio in Pittsfield, New Hampshire (plate 10); and a neon ice-cream cone sign, taken in the light of day,made on a trip to an unsuccessful job interview at Georgia State University in Atlanta (plate 6). Much to his chagrin, it was on his return from Atlanta, while stopping to stay with a cousin in Washington, D.C., that a set of prints that he had made for himself from Evans’s negatives was stolen from his car. In a report to the police, Dow attempted to describe the prints and their value: “They are mostly pictures of landscape, facades of buildings and houses and portraits, both individual and group. There are no nudes, nor is it plausible that the photographs could be of any possible interest or use to whoever took them … as they are they are relatively worthless, unless one has an understanding of how and where to go and sell art:’ (25) None of the prints was ever recovered.

Keeping himself well informed about current events, Dow read the New York Times and the Boston Globe daily, as well as I. F. Stone’s Weekly, a liberal newsletter written by the investigative journalist Isidor Feinstein Stone, who was renowned for his meticulous analysis of published governmental reports to argue his progressive views. (26) Dow also read the New York Review of Books, which published blistering political cartoons and caricatures by David Levine. At times, however, Dow found it difficult to keep from being overwhelmed, particularly as the news of William Calley, on trial for his role in the My Lai massacre of 1969, and the sentencing of Charles Manson for the Tate-LaBianca murders (which also took place in 1969), consumed the news cycle: “Calley was found guilty today! Manson sentenced to die; the recession deepens; the lying, cheating, bombast and pettifoggery continues unchecked and I silently stir and push my prints about in the dark listening …. It gets me after a while.”(27)

About - Jim Dow Photography (7)

Dow did make a few road trips in the first half of 1972, traveling to visit friends in the South and driving across the country to take a part-time teaching position at the Vancouver School of Art in British Columbia. Though he bemoaned his overall lack of productivity, he made several notable photographs. (28) In March, traveling with Emmet Gowin, Dow photographed Lucy the Elephant, a well-known tourist destination in Margate, near Atlantic City in New Jersey (plate 54). For more than eighty years, the six-story colossus, originally known as the Elephant Bazaar and at times called the Elephant Hotel, had stood there, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Its novelty made it a popular subject for numerous postcards (fig. 6). By the 1960s Lucy, fallen into severe disrepair, was slated for demolition until a group of concerned citizens raised money to rescue her. After being towed approximately a hundred yards down Atlantic Avenue, the ninety-ton creature was gradually refurbished. Dow’s photograph shows the decrepit pachyderm in the process of renewal, with strips of sheet metal “skin” peeling back from the steel frame. (29)

About - Jim Dow Photography (8)

In the fall Dow began teaching a documentary-oriented photography course in the Visual and Environmental Studies Department at Harvard University and received word that he had been awarded an individual artist grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for the following year. In his project proposal, he clarified his intention to photograph the commercial establishments lining older U.S. highways that still served a functional purpose but were no longer deemed important enough to warrant new commercial construction and remained roughly as they had been twenty years earlier. (30)

These highways, first established in the mid-1920s, continued to thrive through World War II and into the early 1950s, but had been supplanted by the U.S. Interstate system. They connected towns and cities and, winding through vast expanses of rural areas, offered advertisers a prime location to sell goods, services, and lifestyles to mobile consumers. Their intended, and primary, audience was the white, middleclass motorist who could afford the luxury and safety of automobile travel (see plates 17-20, 24, 25, 35-38, and 40-48). Black motorists faced a great deal of peril and uncertainty. With a few notable exceptions, including The Negro Motorist Green Book and Travelguide, Black travelers were largely ignored or excluded completely from roadside signage and the establishments they advertised. (31) The imagery that Dow encountered on many of these signs, of smiling white men and women and nuclear families, clearly reflects this bias, even if the cultural moment in which he photographed, in the immediate wake of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, was inflected by the actions of many who were challenging the heterogeneity of those earlier representations.

As Americans became mobile consumers, highways became “buyways;’ and the commercial strips that lined these roads had a profound influence on the experience of everyday life. (32) Unlike advertisem*nts in printed media, roadside culture evolved to accommodate an aesthetics of speed, enlarging imagery and reducing text to convey simplified messages as cars drove past.(33) Compared with the billboards on the Interstate system, which was constructed with fewer access points to accommodate more vehicles traveling at higher speeds, and often set above and apart from the natural landscape, the signage along the older thoroughfares, albeit larger than life, functioned on a much more human scale. Additionally, the imagery often reflected more idiosyncratic tastes, talents, and desires, especially if the signs were handcrafted.

Dow began his NEA-funded travel in February 1973, driving around the United States in a GMC van that he bought as a shell and equipped with a bed. (34) He covered approximately forty thousand miles over the course of six months and made three extended trips through the South, West, and Midwest, with various shorter trips in and around New England. In the West and Southwest, along routes such as US 101, US 66, US 93, and US 180, he photographed the romanticized imagery of “California vaqueros” or “cowboys and Indians” that regularly appeared in billboards, neon signs, and painted murals on stores and drive-in movie theatres (plates 14-17). Originally intended to equate tourism and leisure with the pioneering efforts of early white settlers as they conquered the frontier, these purblind depictions are far removed from historically accurate accounts of the people or events to which ostensibly they allude.

Dow experimented with different aesthetic approaches as he sought to refine his vision. For several exposures made with his 8- by 10-inch camera, he used a 150 mm lens, which is a normal lens for a 4- by 5-inch camera but smaller than his camera’s 8- by 10-inch film plane, with the result that it created a vignetted image with rounded edges visible in the picture itself (plates 7, 8, 33, 43, 52, 55, and 56). For some photographs, he would isolate parts of the imagery on a sign, leaving no background visible, an effect that focuses attention on the illustrations themselves (plates 19, 24, 34-39, and 48). In other works, his vantage point is more distanced and includes environmental details that add significant meaning to the photograph. In Praying Hands on Dirt Mound, US 66, Webb City, Missouri (plate 9), for example, a hilltop sculpture of praying hands is seen hoisted atop scaffolding on a grassless knoll. At the time Dow photographed it, the sculpture, conceived by a young artist named Jack Dawson, was under construction, funded through small, local donations. By including the metal support structure, Dow emphasizes the frailty of the unfinished work, which was built to serve as a symbol of uplift during difficult times.

About - Jim Dow Photography (9)

By late May of 1973, Dow had established categories he would expand upon in subsequent travels: roadside food stands, diners and cafes, religious (often evangelical Christian) symbols and exhortations, drive-in movie theatres, laundromats, vernacular and patriotic architectural ornamentation, and billboards promoting everything from public safety messages to La-Z-Boy recliners (see plates 37-39 and 41 ). The visual lexicon his photographs depict is unmistakably American in its optimistic fervor to sell goods and services, safety and salvation, and an abundance of fast food. When he traveled to Europe with his girlfriend Linda Carmeroto in August 1973, Dow had an opportunity to compare American abundance with conditions under communism in Hungary, Romania, and the former Czechoslovakia. At the recommendation of his godfather, Dow purchased a new vehicle, a Mercedes diesel, in Germany and had it shipped back to the United States. Known for its longevity and fuel efficiency, the car indeed proved to be an astute investment as a replacement for his gas-guzzling GMC van (fig. 7) during the oil crisis in the 1970s. He drove this car for the remainder of his travels, affectionately naming it “Petunia:'(35)

In many of Dow’s subjects, the passage of time is readily apparent. Often, in his views of establishments barely hanging on or completely shuttered, a sense of loss is implied in the absence of the people. Dow gravitated to these subjects from the beginning of his travels: one photograph made in 1970 (plate 61) shows an abandoned truck stop along US 61 in an unincorporated community named Number Nine in the Mississippi delta in Arkansas. The site appears as a broken assemblage of concrete slabs, defunct light fixtures, and a rusted metal sign. Though it once thrived, its skeletal armature and a sign are all that remain, ruins in desolate surroundings. Other examples include a soft-serve ice-cream stand abandoned after a spate of regional floods in Pennsylvania (plate 7) and a crinkled canvas doll sign, its surface cracked and abraded, in Missouri (plate 44). These ruins-in-the-making are haunted by specters of the individuals who supported the once flourishing communities.

The post-World War II economic boom came to an end in the early 1970s, to be followed by a decade of economic recession and stagflation, exacerbated by the oil crisis. During this period, the possibilities for earning a livelihood through meaningful work had greatly diminished. As Studs Terkel, a historian and radio broadcaster much admired by Dow, suggested, the “planned obsolescence” of people and “the things they make or sell” had taken a psychological and emotional toll on Americans, with potentially devastating human costs. “It is perhaps this fear of no longer being needed in a world of needless things;’ wrote Terkel, “that most clearly spells out the unnaturalness, the surreality of much that is called work today:’ (36) Such sentiments permeate many of Dow’s photographs, picturing as they do the fleeting nature of individual endeavor in an economy that relies on the perpetual search for newer things and bigger markets.

Dow continued to make a “subjective investigation of the American roadscape” for the next four years, aided considerably by a Guggenheim Fellowship awarded in 1974 but deferred for a year due to full-time teaching responsibilities. (37) He certainly felt the effect of the country’s oil crisis, which resulted in inflated gasoline prices, the federally mandated 55-mph speed limit, gas shortages, and long lines at service stations. In January 1974, he wrote to the Guggenheim Foundation to propose an alternative form of transportation, in the event that car travel proved too difficult and costly for him: “Should it seem impossible to obtain enough fuel to keep on the road my intention is to build a “photowagon” in the manner of Roger Fenton … obtaining a pulling team and setting out over the same routes as proposed:’ Lest the foundation mistake his intentions as anachronistic, he went on to clarify: “I do not intend this as any sort of return to the land …. Consistent mobility, even at a strolling pace interests me far more than an endless scramble for gas.” The letter echoed his earlier descriptions of the project he was proposing, in which he noted that his interest lay not with “those slashes of technological conformity that make up the Interstate System” but rather in traveling the older roads, where there remained a sense of “human scale” and “some sense of local and individual uniqueness and style” within mass culture. He also postulated that his venture would more often than not be a “post-mortem” search, as these unique forms of expression were rapidly deteriorating. 38 In his photographs, several subjects convey this sense of individual style and technique. Though there is humor to be found, Dow’s intentions are neither to indict nor to look down upon his subjects from some imagined, elevated sense of aesthetics or taste. His eye is respectful and sympathetic. A painted image of two smiling teenagers roller skating together, arms akimbo (plate 25), for example, is rendered without concern for accurate details or bodily proportion. The sign readily conveys feelings of joy and camaraderie promised by a visit to this roller rink in Hammond, Louisiana. A hand-painted plywood sign for a lounge in Crowley, Louisiana (plate 42), entices visitors with a drawing of a bowler hat and pool cue – symbols of class aspirations, perhaps. Astutely, the illustrators used a diamond-shaped window as a central component of the overall presentation, incorporating architectural elements into the design.

Time and again, as he expanded his visual catalogue of subjects, Dow, without passing judgment with his camera, photographed similar signs and structures in which the graphic language ranged from amateur efforts to more polished professionalism. As pictured in full-frame close-ups, the rough outline of painted gas pumps on a plywood sign along US 119 in Neon, Kentucky (plate 58), performs the same function as a slick, stylized gas station painting along US 19 in Albany, Georgia (plate 59). Both signs, Dow seems to say, equally and effectively convey their messages. The flaking and faded form of a child praying (plate 34)- a detail in a larger church sign in Eureka Springs, Arkansas (fig. 8) – speaks as powerfully about the pervasive presence of religious symbolism in the American social landscape as does the sculpture, in Phoenix, Arizona, of a colossal pair of stone hands joined in prayer (plate 31 ). Nonetheless, although Dow’s pictures avoid a judgmental cast, the willful historical misconceptions of certain roadside novelties almost speak for themselves. A stucco teepee, situated next to a fire hydrant in Canutillo, Texas (plate 55), attempts to replicate a portable shelter used by Plains Indians, but radically transfigures it as an immobile structure for the amusem*nt of twentieth-century (white) tourists. A simulacrum so far removed from its origins, the structure, stripped and whitewashed of meaning, is repackaged as a form of touristic mythmaking.

In 1976, Dow was one of twenty-four photographers selected for a commission from the Joseph E. Seagram Corporation to photograph more than eleven thousand county courthouses as part of a project to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial. Dow worked with a specific itinerary through 1976 and early 1977, making several photographs in the South (see plate 53). Dow credits the courthouse project with making him a better architectural photographer, forcing him to find the best angles and lighting when the historically important buildings assigned to him proved less than exciting. It also required him to photograph inside the structures and to ask permission, which was not always readily granted. Until then, his photographs had focused on the world outside.

About - Jim Dow Photography (11)

While working on the courthouse project, he continued to photograph roadside signs and signage, including a sign for the Cypress Knee Museum in Palmdale, Florida; wall paintings for a hardware store in Nashville, Tennessee, and a clothing store in Lockhart, Texas; a papier mache elephant, purportedly warning drivers not to drink and drive, along US 202 in Gwynedd, Pennsylvania; and a “Ride with Rose” gas station sign in Ruston, Louisiana (plates 32, 45, 46, 57, and 60). The black-and-white format that had served Dow continuously to this point proved disappointing in the instance of the elephant, which was painted a bright pink. It was during the courthouse project that color film had become both more affordable and more acceptable for Dow, who shifted his primary practice to color at about this time. The pictures that Dow made between 1967 and 1977 established his unique vision of the built environment, a sensibility refined by what he learned from the many people with whom he traveled and whom he met along the way. These experiences and relationships, more than any influence from contemporary art trends or prevailing discourse about the medium of photography itself, gave meaning to his photographic pursuits in those early years and the courage and confidence to embrace photography as his primary means of expression. In looking back, some fifty years later, at those photographs, one becomes aware of the sense of observing and understanding things that are less of a particular time than about the passage of time itself. Though most of the subjects Dow photographed have long since disappeared, the impetus to make one’s mark on the land through an assertion of livelihood, values, and aspiration remains. In a democratic, capitalist nation, in which economic prosperity relies on a perpetual renewal of tastes, trends, and styles, there will always be a desire to express individual agency and creativity in the landscape we inhabit. As difficult as that endeavor may be in an era of multinational corporate conglomerates that seek to monopolize consumption, it remains vital for understanding our sense of self and community.


The epigraph is quoted from Leslie Katz, “Interview with Walker Evans,” Art in America 59, no. 2 (March/April 1971), 87.

1. Jim Dow, notes for a lecture delivered at Harvard University, ca. 1976; collection of Jim and Jacquie Dow (hereafter, Dow collection).

2. This phrase is derived from the title of the project proposal, “A Subjective Investigation of the American Roadscape,” that Dow submitted in his application for the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship that he was awarded in 1974; Dow collection.

3. Dow used a 4- by 5-inch Calumet camera while at RISD, switching to an 8- by 10-inch camera around 1968. In 1972 he purchased an 8- by 10-inch Deardorff camera with the assistance of friends. Ron and Mary Jane Todd bought the apparatus for him at Altman Camera Co. in Chicago, a legendary photography supply store founded by Ralph Altman, who operated his business from 1964 until he retired in 1975.

4. The exhibition Walker Evans, on view at MoMA in 1971, included two hundred prints, ranging from well-known work made in the late 1920s and 1930s to later and lesser-known photographs. For a full press release, checklist, and installation views of the exhibition, see https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/2674.

5. Walker Evans and Lincoln Kirstein, American Photographs, 2nd ed. (1938; repr. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1962); and James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939).

6. Dow, Harvard lecture, ca. 1976.

7. According to Anne Bertrand, Evans first used the term documentary-style in an interview with Leslie Katz in 1971; see Anne Bertrand, ed., Walker Evans: The Interview with Leslie Katz (New York: Eakins Press, 2019), 7. Dow recalls reading the interview and feeling at the time that it was one of the best pieces on Evans ever written.

8. Walker Evans, lecture, delivered at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, October 29, 1971 ; see https: //deepblue.lib.umich.eduhandle/2027.42/121522. In his early views, colored as they were by the social and political climate of the 1930s, Evans dismissed the possibility of objectivity or honesty in documentary photography. Though he retained this skepticism throughout his career, he began to clarify his practice in the 1960s and early 1970s, describing his work in 1964 as lyric documentary in a lecture at Yale University and, in 1971, as documentary-style in his interview with Leslie Katz (see note 7). During this period, he also admired the liberated views of a younger generation, and particularly those of his students at Yale University, where he taught from 1964 to 1972. The social freedoms and political activism he observed in his students resonated with his own desires as a young man, even if he felt that social strictures at that time made such pursuits far less possible. For a full transcript of Evans’s lecture at Yale in 1964, including reproductions of images shown, see Jeff L. Rosenheim, Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard (Gottingen, Germany: Steidl Verlag, 2009), 103-23. For more on Evans’s desire to relate to his students, see Belinda Rathbone, Walker Evans: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 275.

9. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1961 ); and Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).

10. J. B. Jackson, “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things,” Landscape 1, no. 1 (Spring 1951 ), 5.

11. In conversation (July 2021), Dow recalls regular meetings with faculty involved in photography and documentary film, including Robert Gardner, Len Gittleman, Alfred Guzzetti, Janet Mendelsohn, Barbara “Bobbie” Norfleet, and Richard P. Rogers. Though Jackson taught in both the Visual and Environmental Studies department and the Landscape Architecture department, he did not attend these faculty gatherings. Nonetheless, as Dow recalls, his ideas were in the air.

12. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven lzenour, Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1977), xi.

13. Jim Dow, journal, March 11, 1971; Dow collection.

14. In conversation (May 2021), Dow said that his father attended Harvard Law School and worked as an estate lawyer. His mother, who had a master’s degree from UC Berkeley, earned a PhD in sociology from Radcliffe in 1934; she stopped working when her son was born.

15. One of Dow’s high school friends was James Bond, the younger brother of the civil rights activist Julian Bond and the son of the historian, activist, and educator Horace Mann Bond. James, who, among other achievements, later served as a councilman in Atlanta, traveled with Jim on his first road trip to the South. For more about the significance of this trip, see the contribution “When the Present Becomes a Past” in this volume.

16. In conversation (May 2021 ), Dow recalls that Callahan fought “tooth and nail” with other faculty members to have Dow admitted into the graduate program, which rarely accepted students who had attended RISD as undergraduates.

17. Callahan’s connections with students endured long after graduation. In March 1972, four years after Dow had earned his master of fine arts degree, Harry and his wife Eleanor hosted a gathering of students, alumni, and faculty at their home in Providence after a lecture by Frederick Sommer. After several minutes of animated conversation, Callahan said to Dow: “I really love to see your intensity, your enthusiasm for whatever it might be at the moment: photo, Walker Evans, distance running. I don’t worry about you, but I certainly did” (Dow, journal, March 15 and 16, 1972).

18. After the death of his mother, Dow spent a great deal of time caring for his ailing father in Belmont while simultaneously completing his graduate coursework (Dow, conversation, July 2021 ).

19. As an undergraduate, Dow first encountered Roth, then a part-time instructor at both RISO and Yale, when he was invited by Malcolm Grear to give design assignments to his students (Dow, conversation, May 2021 ). Roth’s comment about Evans is also reproduced in American Studies: Photographs by Jim Dow (Brooklyn: Powerhouse Books, 2011 ), 119.

20. Dow, conversation, May 2021.

21. Bunnell’s commentary was both robust and detailed: “I have taken the liberty of being rather ruthless with corrections to you [sic] manuscript. Though it looks as though blood were spilled on the pages, please understand that I took this time in the mood of deep interest in what you are doing and the concern that it be done in the finest possible manner. Thus greater credit will be reflected on yourself and in another way on Walker” (Peter Bunnell to Dow, letter, June 7, 1968; Dow collection). Dow eventually abandoned the written part of his thesis, which was optional, and instead submitted a portfolio of prints, a requirement for graduation.

22. In his first attempt at printing Evans’s negatives, Dow emulated the deep contrasts typical of Harry Callahan’s work. Szarkowski rejected this approach, and Robert Richfield, a colleague at RISO, suggested the use of the developer Amidol in conjunction with a softer grade of paper approximating the type preferred by Evans in the 1930s. With a bit of experimentation this combination worked to resemble more closely the appearance of Evans’s prints (Dow, conversation, May 2021).

23. Dow had a difficult time with Evans’s self-proclaimed sexism and the dismissive manner in which he spoke about women. Belinda Rathbone, Evans’s biographer, mentioned his regular attractions to younger women, reciprocated and otherwise, during his later years; see Rathbone, Walker Evans, 280-308.

24. Dow, Harvard lecture, ca. 1976.

25. Dow to John Dials, Inspector, First District, Washington, D.C., letter, January 11, 1972 (Dow collection).

26. The Boston Globe also published Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” a popular, nationally syndicated cartoon that ran from 1949 to 1975 and detailed the misadventures of an opossum and his friends in the Okefenokee swamp. The political subtext of Kelly’s drawings, in which he took aim at McCarthyism, communism, segregation, and the Vietnam War, often roused the ire of censors, who suppressed certain comic strips or moved them to the editorial pages.

27. Dow, journal, March 30, 1970 (Dow collection).

28. In the first half of 1972, Dow worried that he had made only fifteen pictures in the past two and a half years and wondered whether his artistic aspirations were merely “self-delusions.” Yet the act of constantly looking, even without picture taking, seemed worthy. “Brood and plot as I might, I can see no other way.” (Dow, typewritten statement, February 1972; Dow collection).

29. The Elephant Bazaar was the brainchild of James V. Lafferty, a speculator in real estate, who took out a seventeen-year patent to create animal-shaped buildings and had the creature constructed to attract tourists and lure prospective property owners. The structure was sold in 1887 to Anton Gertzen of Philadelphia (whose daughter nicknamed the elephant “Lucy”), and it remained in the family until around 1970, serving, variously, as a restaurant, office, and vacation rental (though never actually a hotel) until it fell into disrepair in the 1960s; see https://weirdnj.com/stories/lucy-the-elephant/.

30. Dow, application for grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1972 (Dow collection).

31. The Green Book, as it came to be known later, was begun by Victor H. Green, a travel agent in New York. Inspired by Green’s example, William H. “Billy” Butler, a former jazz musician, began the Travelguide. For more on the significance of these two publications and the impact of race relations on the expansion of modern American road travel, see Cotton Seiler, Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 115-16.

32. For a detailed and fascinating study of this subject, see Catherine Gudis, Buyways: Billboards, Automobiles, and the American Landscape (New York: Routledge, 2004).

33. Motor speeds steadily increased between the mid-1920s and the 1930s, from thirty-five miles per hour to fifty-five miles per hour; ibid. 66.

34. The vehicle functioned as a more rustic version, perhaps, of the truck named “Rocinante” and fitted out like a camper, in which John Steinbeck traveled, with his dog, across the United States “in search of America’.’ He later chronicled these journeys in the best-selling, semifictional memoir Travels with Charley: In Search of America (New York: Viking, 1961), a book Dow had read and enjoyed.

35. “Petunia” would survive through three coats of paint and over three hundred and fifty thousand miles (Dow, conversation, May 2021 ).

36. Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (New York: Pantheon, 1974), xviii.

37. Dow began his first full-time teaching appointment at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the fall of 1 973. Before this appointment, he had taught at Harvard beginning in the fall of 1972, at the Vancouver School of Art in British Columbia as apart-time photography instructor in the summer of 1972, and-filling in for Murray Riss, a friend and colleague at RISD – for several weeks at the Memphis Academy of Art in Tennessee. His experiences in Vancouver and in Memphis inspired Dow to think of teaching as a career.

38. Dow to Guggenheim Foundation, letter, January 25, 1974 (draft) (Dow collection). Roger Fenton (1819-1869) was a British photographer who traveled in 1855 to cover the Crimean War. He constructed a horsedrawn “photographic van” to carry his equipment, serve as a darkroom, and provide accommodation.

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