SXSE: What drew you to Robert Frank and The Americans?
Trenton Moore: Robert Frank has always been a fascinating character to me, as I’m sure he’s been to many. The idea of retracing his route from The Americans, however, really had more to do with my curiosity about the ideas of time and place. What do the places he visited look like today? Has anything actually changed in 60 years? How does time affect a place, and the inverse?
The whole journey was meant to be a spiritual pilgrimage, of sorts. It was my way of not just studying a master, but walking a few thousand miles in his shoes. Before setting out, I sent Frank a letter asking for his blessing. Much to my amazement he wished me luck, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more. Never having formally studied photography, everyone I respected charged me with studying its history … maybe this was a bit of overcompensation?
SXSE: Did you learn anything specific on the journey?
TM: On a personal level, I learned to accept the kindness of strangers. Part of the trip included Couchsurfing on many a new friends’ sofa. That concept is hard for a lot of people to understand, and on some level I can see why it would make you recoil, but in hindsight I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Couchsurfing introduced me to many an interesting character and idea, and I almost always got a local perspective on wherever I was and whatever I was doing. Yeah, I slept on a couple of cringe-worthy carpets in soggy basements, but for every one of those there was a stately home with a cushy bed. When you don’t start out a morning knowing where you’re going to stay, you quickly become thankful for almost anyplace with a kind and smiling host.
On a more macro level, I suppose I learned that nothing really changes. Almost all of the social issues that Frank dealt with and discussed I still witnessed on one level or another. If anything, they’ve only become more complex and nuanced, compounded by technology and sometimes stagnate in their progress.
SXSE: What did you think about Frank while you were retracing his steps?
TM: Candidly, on some level, I tried not to think about Frank. My goal wasn’t to recreate Frank’s photographs, if anything, it was to photograph in an opposite way. I had a copy of The Americans that travelled with me, but I didn’t want to be looking at it too much; i didnt want it to influence me visually any more than it already had, as the project was really about place and time. Though, there was a ritual with almost every new host, where I’d have to fetch my copy from the back of the car to fully explain what I was doing. Beyond that, I didn’t languish it while I was on the road. I’d occasionally find myself asking “What would Frank be doing in this situation?” but I never really wanted an answer to that question … I always enjoyed being able to romanticize about it more.
SXSE: Was there anyplace specific you knew you had to visit because Frank had been there?
TM: It was relatively rare that I’d set out with the specific intent of seeing a landmark or a place exactly as Frank had seen it. In large part because it was almost impossible. Frank showed us gestures, emotions, and the beautifully mundane, not the Chrysler building and the Golden Gate Bridge. For him, and I may be very wrong here, I think the places in his photographs were simply settings for his stories, and in that sense, I was interested in how I could use use those same settings 60 years later to tell mine.
That being said, there was one instance I recall pretty specifically. After having shown my couchsurfing host in New Orleans the iconic image of the trolley car, he decided he had to know exactly where the photograph was taken. He intensely studied the image and saw something in it I’d never seen before: a Walgreens drug store in the background. Seeing as though the only Walgreens he knew in front of the trolly line had been there since the 1940s, it was really likely that earlier that day I’d photographed the exact same place not even realizing it.
SXSE: How did you prepare for the trip?
TM: The project started out with a level of research that most people would probably consider mildly obsessive. The National Gallery in Washington, DC, which holds a majority of Frank’s archive, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC were kind enough to allow me to come in look at almost anything I needed.
Another big part of preparing for the trip involved mapping out the roads we presume Frank took. While the roads he took weren’t specifically documented, each of his contact sheets is labeled with the town or city he was in. A big part of my job was to pour over maps from 1955-56 to string along a path that would have existed at the time Frank was traveling. It was never as easy as hopping on the expressway, because the interstate system we now know simply didn’t exist while he was on on the road. While many of the roads from Frank’s era do still exist, some have been paved over, turned into interstates or even completely uprooted; it was occasionally a tedious task to map what they’ve become.
SXSE: Were there any benefits/comforts that you had that Frank didn’t?
TM: The one modern luxury I refused to give up was having a smartphone. A lot of my navigation was at least plotted through Google Maps, while Spotify and podcasts prevented me from being bored to tears during long days on the road.
I typically tried to keep my driving time to about three hour segments, but there were occasionally days where I was spending upwards of six to eight hours on the road. Like many things in life, the bad days made the good ones that much better, and believe me, I had quite a few bad days knowing I hadn’t gotten at a single decent photo and questioning at least my own sanity.
SXSE: Were there run-down shifty towns that are now different – maybe in a better way?
TM: You know, the more I think about it, I probably experienced a little more of the opposite. A lot of the cities have grown significantly, but there haven’t really been a ton of boom towns. Silicon Vally is probably the first thing that comes to mind … I was driving around south of the San Francisco area and sort of stumbled upon the Facebook headquarters. I think Las Vegas is another city that’s changed a lot. Frank didn’t really spend much time there, but it’s become a wildly thriving city, maybe even switching places with a town like Elko. Butte, Montana, is another town that’s not necessarily grown, but changed significantly. It was once a major mining city, but has become home to a variety of other arts and industries.
SXSE: Did you expect the first run of Through The Window to sell out so quickly?
TM: Through The Window started out as the side-project to Retracing America, where my original intent was to explore ideas outside my car with a few notable exceptions. It’s since taken on a life its own, and while it’s not what I expected I can certainly see why. Candidly, I’m not exactly sure what to expect for its future. Its links to projects by other photographers like Hiroshi Sugimoto and Lee Friedlander put it square in line with conceptual photography du jour. It’s also something that’s got some visual resonance, and doesn’t have a huge barrier to entry.
SXSE: What has self-publishing been like?
TM: If publishing a book is painful, self-publishing a book can be excruciating. The entire experience continues to be trial by fire in some of the best ways possible. You become your own editorial, design, distribution, and marketing teams unless you’re in a position to hire some talent. The flip-side to that is total freedom: you’re not under the thumb of a publisher. Your finances and timelines are more likely to dictate what you can do than anything else.
I started out doing a first edition with a very small run of books for two main reasons. 1) I didn’t know how my audience was going to respond. The whole thing was a little bit of a test, as this was the first time I’d put out a book that wasn’t a simple zine. 2) The last thing I wanted was a bunch of books sitting around my apartment. Little did I realize that I’d actually sell out the run in a week and a half. Now that I know the content has an interested audience, the second edition will be a much larger run.
SXSE: What were some of your thoughts while designing the book?
TM: From the beginning I knew that I wanted the book itself to be extremely simple. The type treatment is also very uniform and straightforward: black Futura Bold caps on a white page. For a project like this, though, its simplicity can become a nightmare because every last detail has to be watched over and configured precisely. If the sizing or proportions aren’t correct, things begin to run amok. I was lucky in that there wasn’t a ton of editorial work to be done. The entire project is presented chronologically, and there weren’t a lot of photos that got cut. For the first edition we printed through MagCloud, and for the second it’s looking like we’re probably going to use Blurb.
SXSE: How did you come up with the cover?
TM: I’ve always had a big soft spot for modernist hard-edge abstraction, and I’m constantly looking for the right opportunities to merge photography and design and this seemed like a good one. The cover was very loosely based off of an Auguste Herbin painting from the late 50s/early 60s. I used each of the shapes that would typically hold a solid color to instead be a window, if you will, to sliver of a photograph from the book. Not to beat a dead horse, but I also like to think about the entire composite in the context of a gothic stained glass window, offering a glimpse into the some of the bigger stories the book holds.
Trenton Moore is an American born photographer currently based in Washington, DC and frequently working out of New York City. Trenton considers Central Florida home and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design from Florida Southern College. He was most recently an artist in residence at Laughing Horse Gallery in Taos, New Mexico and is a 2016 Luminous Endowment honoree. He’s currently working on his latest project, Becoming Italian, about gaining his Italian citizenship, and is actively seeking national and international galleries or institutions interested in showing his work.
Books are currently on pre-orer and the expected delivery for the second edition is early February