William Durden

Laura Elizabeth Shea ‘I cannot penetrate the spirit’: Inge Morath’s Road to Reno photographs

FRIDAY 26 JUNE 2015, 18.00


Since Robert Frank’s 1955-1957 road trip photographs were published as The Americans, road trip photography has been understood as a critical subgenre of documentary photography. Frank’s photographs have been analyzed as social critique of mid-century conformity through their stylistic affinities with other cultural indicators of personal vision and individualism. The purpose of this study is to situate Frank within a broader context of European photographers taking American road trips, specifically, Inge Morath’s 1960 trip with Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 1960, Magnum photographer Morath took an eighteen-day road trip with her colleague Cartier-Bresson from Manhattan to Reno, where they had been commissioned to photograph the making of the Hollywood western The Misfits, written by Arthur Miller and starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Even though this route was 600 miles longer, hotter, and more crowded with tourists than that through the Midwest, they took it, I argue, because they wanted to see places where America’s mythologized post-war ideals about freedom and democracy were unfulfilled. Morath’s Road to Reno photographs draw upon familiar aspects of the road trip experience but refuse them, instead picturing stifling interiors, visually confusing windows, and diminutive landscapes. The production photographs from the set of The Misfits, and stills from its own narrative of obsolete cowboys, further elaborate the themes of Morath’s road-trip photographs, un-doing, photographically, the idea of a unified historical discourse and freedom for all. Her photographs visualize history, and the experience of it, as a complex sensory endeavor and visual transparency as something to be questioned.

Laura Elizabeth Shea graduated with an MA in Art History from Richmond in 2011. She has since written for TemporaryArtReview.com and the Aesthetica Magazine blog, interned at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, curated MFA student shows, and worked as an adjunct instructor. She is currently a PhD candidate in Art History specializing in the history of photography with Dr. Terri Weissman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she has also served as a teaching assistant for introductory art history courses and a research assistant to Dr. Weissman. She recently co-organized a graduate student symposium entitled, New Terrains: The Landscape Reviewed which interrogated the kind of cultural work expanded notions of landscape can do. She is currently working on her dissertation, tentatively titled, Photographs from America: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Inge Morath’s American road trips.