“The Way It Was. Road Trips USA” by Thomas Hoepker (published by Steidl)

Photographer got his kicks on Route 66 and all over America

Conventional wisdom advises against returning, decades later, to a place for which you hold happy memories – a birthplace, a childhood home or a honeymoon spot, perhaps. Things would have inevitably changed with time and those roseate memories could be shattered. In November 2020 photographer Thomas Hoepker set out on a journey across America similar to the one he had undertaken in 1963.
7. May 2022 12:44

Would he find that the way it was back then was better than the way it is now, or is this just some sort of romantic nostalgic myth that people hold on to? Or could it be that his road trip would actually be better now, safer, with wider and faster roads? In our opinion, if the United States is anything like modern-day Europe, expect more traffic, costly toll booths, wall-to-wall trucks, roadworks, radar traps, speed cameras and unmarked police cars. Still, here is a book of Hoepker’s pictures, mostly from 1963, and it offers considerable food for thought, at least for we, the viewers.

Hoepker, born in Munich, Germany, in 1936, first visited America in 1960. He made his second trip in 1963 as a 27-year-old staff photographer for the fortnightly German illustrated magazine Kristall. He and companion Rolf Winter, an author, set out on the long journey from coast to coast, and the endpapers of this book, a clothbound hardcover, show all the roads they took.

The routes are a massively thorough and complicated trip that leaves barely a corner of the 48 states untouched. In big cities, small towns and all in between, Hoepker took thousands of pictures, on black-and-white film. A selection appeared in a report spread over five issues of Kristall and occupying a total of 65 pages. This was a trip to encounter multi-faceted America: the country between the coasts, the heartland. The fly-over country, as it’s sometimes called. Hoepker would respond to places, landscapes and people along the way.

Their assignment was very broadly defined: “Do you want to discover America?” the editor-in-chief of Kristall had asked them. Hoepker has confessed that he and Winter were shockingly naive when they set off and full of European arrogance. He experienced the country they encountered as a dreary backwater and its inhabitants as small-minded petty bourgeois: “We found what we wanted to find.”

They flew to New York and set out from there in an Oldsmobile Cutlass and with an expense account suited to last a month rather than the three-month trip they had planned. From New York they went via Washington, Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, Butte, Las Vegas and Los Angeles to San Francisco. Then the journey took them back to New York through Reno, Detroit, Chicago and Boston.

The book’s hundreds of photos are not captioned at all and are only given a rough locale, so it is guesswork where exactly they were taken. But perhaps it’s not all that important. Things have changed. Here is a social story of early 1960s America – mom and pop motels, drive-in restaurants and pool halls, dance halls with the “most beautiful hostesses” and 24-hour wedding chapels for “Immediate Ceremonies” complete with photos, flowers and recordings.

Cinemas are showing Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Bob Hope, or you could watch Gene Krupa drum up a storm in a club. Put a coin in the diner jukeboxes or in the machine that offers a lucky charm medal with the Lord’s Prayer stamped on it. Auto graveyards hold gas-guzzling cars, and folding cameras were in use. Livestock roamed in the open air, not giant tin sheds.

And, of course, the American people, mostly white, black and native Indian, when it was de rigeur to at least try to dress nicely, the men in hats and ties, the women in furs and gloves, a more elegant way of presenting oneself than the sloppy running shoes, tracksuit pants and ripped jeans of today. Here too are strippers with scanty panties and pasties covering their nipples, Bible bashers, miners in hard-hats and southerners in cowboy hats. Also “Miss Rodeo” girls and a lone neo-Nazi.

A black photographer on the street offers to take pictures of passers-by and their children with his white rabbit. People still read newspapers on the subway, and the latest headlines in November 1963 are “JFK DEAD” and “KENNEDY SLAIN”.

And does any country have more evocative place names than America: Chattanooga, El Paso, Albuquerque, Tallahassee, Cheyenne, Milwaukee, Carolina, Wichita, Death Valley and so on? Route 66 and Highway 61. Hoepker, despite his early superior German/European attitude to the country, eventually became fascinated and he settled in New York in 1976.

In 2020, aged 84 and after a successful career as a photojournalist and president of Magnum Photos between 2003 and 2007, he again set out on a road trip throughout the US, this time with a woman and a mobile home.

“The Way It Was. Road Trips USA” juxtaposes a few of his colour photographs from this latter trip – wind farms, Las Vegas casino fantasyland and so on – but it is mainly about 1963, with a far greater number of original black-and-white images. There is no text from Hoepker, no thoughts, but rather a few pages of introduction by Freddy Langer, a German author and photographer, giving background and some context (in English) on Hoepker’s travels.

Thus we are mostly left to ourselves to ponder whether the way it was back then was better than the way it is now.  And perhaps we should be looking forwards in life, but it’s certainly pleasant, not to mention instructive, to take a peek backwards too sometimes.

Leave a Reply