Some Background on Interstate

From the Introduction to Interstate the book:

It started with a postcard. 

While a student in Buffalo, NY several decades ago, I would often hitchhike to Boston or New York, taking the New York State Thruway at least part way. I maintain no particular nostalgia for these trips. I simply wanted to get where I was going in the fastest time at the least expense. It was long, boring, uncertain, hot and heavily patrolled by State Troopers who discouraged hitchhikers, although in my case, entirely correctly, even politely, whatever the ensuing inconvenience. During one trip around 1972, I found a postcard in a rest stop, an entirely anodyne shot of an unidentified section of the Thruway, without drama, compositional distinctiveness or any significant element to distinguish the place, the moment, the photographer’s skill or even the weather. All that was clear is that it was rural, it was summer, it was daytime. Its lack of specificity was breath-taking and its iconic power all the greater for it. It instantly became my favorite postcard, indeed, one of my favorite images, as fascinating to me as a Vermeer, because like a Vermeer, the postcard presented a perfect vessel, entire and complete in itself, pregnant with ambiguity and open to multiple interpretations. But unlike a Vermeer, it’s a photo, so that one of those possible interpretations is that there is no specific intention beyond filling out a commercial postcard portfolio. The image simply is. Seemingly autonomous in its creation. 

Interstates are unlike other roads. To adapt a phrase, on an interstate there is no here here. Most roads are distinctive. Reflecting their place, their local culture, the sedimentary levels of their varied history, they are punctuated by intersections, parks, monuments, cemeteries, churches, stores and other roadside attractions. Interstates, by contrast, are simply a means of traversal. As one commentator writes, “Exchanges have more in common with each other than any one of them has with wherever it happens to be.” (Earl Swift, The Big Roads: the Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries and Trailblazers who Created the American Superhighways, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). Similarly, it is unsurprising that William Least Heat-Moon in “Blue Highways” avoided all but secondary roads in his restorative voyage, understanding that discovery starts only when you exit the interstate and enter the society.

A most intriguing paradigm presented both by the postcard and its subject. Anonymous, indefinite, uninflected. Removed from time. In a strong sense arbitrary. A banality so profound as to be moving. The image could have been taken nearly anywhere along the highway without altering its apparent signification, so that a single image—iconic and full of import—easily stood for a multiplicity of images. But how to address these issues in a concrete way? I thought often of that postcard, but it had gotten misplaced in the ensuing years and I could find it nowhere.

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