It’s almost a year since we featured Renaissance man Anthony Gerace‘s Box Elder Kickstarter. Time flies. Especially if you’re having fun — which is something the London-based photographer/artist/designer had plenty of when he spent over a month trekking the States in a ‘generically blue Ford Focus’.
The Kickstarter was funded, camera loaded, time for the expanse of America’s uncompromising backwaters to consume him. But what of Box Elder, and Gerace’s fixation? “It’s one of the most fascinating places in the country, both for its rugged beauty and for its incongruous histories. It’s these histories and the people that have been shaped by them that fascinate me” he said back then — “it’s a letdown” he bluntly describes at one point in the impressive travel diary publication that is one of the fruits of his time in the US.
Box Elder a surprising footnote in a project that took many twists then. More on that later. What didn’t disenchant was the road trip itself — the affirming pedal-to-the-metal odyssey that unfolded. Anthony captures an America at odds with itself, the superpower that struggles to feed its own. The photographer’s images are heartbreaking; heartwarming — capable of overwhelming their viewers as quickly as the U.S. of A. overwhelmed their maker. Across Gerace’s visual diary he includes spartan notes of his travels, a whirlwind of hangovers, near-disasters and firing guns with strangers. The cliches of the dusty American road trip are there, but presented in a style that celebrates the outsider spirit; revels in disillusion; finds warmth in helplessness. I spoke to Anthony about snake-infested abandoned farms; throwing plans to the wind; the Badlands and Box Elder…
The trip looks like it was quite something. Can you condense the experience into a single sentence?
I don’t know if I can do it, but I’ll try.
You say in the publication that you can’t process Charleston, and allude to two sides of South Carolina’s oldest city — can you elaborate on the experience a little?
Yeah I mean, there were a ton of reasons: it’s this absolutely beautiful, temperate to the point of tropical little jewel on the Atlantic coast, but when you pull into town off I-26 you’re immediately in a neighbourhood where the houses are all pretty affected by the weather, everything is a little run down… and to me, I thought that was Charleston, because that area is huge. I was really excited about it, because everywhere we went everyone was friendly, everything was a bit strange, and it was interesting.
I spent a day shooting there, and that’s where the majority of the images from Charleston got made. And then around midday we went downtown, and it was this totally over-the-top, ridiculously wealthy, confederate Disneyland. It was the first place I’ve been to in the South where the consequences and self-conception of the “high south” exist simultaneously but never overlap.
One thing that’s rarely far from your photos is the Stars and Stripes; but dilapidation is equally as common a theme. Rural America always seems to me as the epitome of the broken American Dream — similarly its most patriotic — and there’s a real sense that these remote towns are lost, floating downstream with no paddle. Did you take anything more positive from your time trekking though semi-ghost towns?
Well, every town is pretty different and I think that’s the most positive takeaway—that even the most run-down, messed up place tries its best to hold onto its identity. And that some of these places have really flipped their remoteness into something workable. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico is a hot spring town on the Rio Grande with a population of less than 7,000 yet it’s this destination for hot springs and hippies. It’s incredible.
Though pulling in after driving through Southern New Mexico, with all its weird darkness, made it seem like the end of the world. I don’t know. I love all of these little places and I find the damage fascinating; for me, the lostness is encoded into the places, so it’s hard to get a positive read, even if there’s one to be taken. Or rather, the affection I have for the places can be lost in the bleakness of the imagery.
Encounters with men on the run, hand-digging your car out of sand dunes — there’s inevitably some hairy situations in a road trip of this scale, what was the most challenging experience, and the most valuable lessons learnt?
The most valuable lesson, without a doubt, was to never stick to the interstates. Get off the interstates immediately. The minute you do you’re confronted with all of these strange towns and their inevitable character; you’re forced to see and be on the ground. And to always put faith in your copilot. In terms of difficult experiences, I’d say nothing could’ve topped the existential horror of the car being stuck in the sand dune, except for maybe the abandoned farm that was infested with snakes… Still, life is for the living, right?
Box Elder was the title of the Kickstarter that took you on this unforgettable trip, the source of your intrigue — but there’s a feeling of it not quite hitting the notes; how did it compare to the dream, and what’s your lasting impression?
I’ve been getting a whole lot of shit for my portrayal of Box Elder, and while it’s true that what I went out there hoping to find was not what I found at all, the disconnect was almost better than finding the ideal thing I was looking for. I remember having this real sense of completion when we drove to Rozel Point and I saw the Spiral Jetty: an hour on backroads, on the only day we weren’t driving our trusty Ford Focus, turning the last corner and seeing the huge expanse of white that is the northwestern Great Salt Lake… and then seeing the Jetty, kind of dwarfed by the landscape. I used the word “consuming” a lot in my descriptions of Box Elder, which, again, got pretty criticised. But that’s the only way I can describe the feeling of being out there.
Box Elder was the only place where I’ve ever truly felt the sublime, and it was this sickening feeling of being in a landscape that just didn’t care, that could’ve just swallowed me. It was incredible. So, yeah: it didn’t hit the notes, but it did hit a whole other series of notes that was more meaningful for the psychological and spiritual impact they had.
Good road trips require good soundtracks, can you fill us in what kept you all sane when faced with hours after hours of the same road? It can’t have all been Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young…
Oh man, so much—too much to name. There were a few moments where the driving and the music kind of gelled together in a transcendent way, though: driving through West Texas and into New Mexico as the desert opened around us, Stars of the Lid’s Avec Laudenum blasting as loudly as possible while the sun hovered in the sky (we were crossing a timezone). That was particularly amazing.
Likewise listening to Gordon Downie’s Coke Machine Glow while driving around Quake Lake in Montana. There was a day, also in Montana, where Troy and I debated the lyrical content of Destroyer’s Your Blues for over an hour while driving through cow country.
Or listening to Cam’ron’s SDE on a completely blackened highway that connected Idaho and Utah after a day swimming in a mountain lake all day, two friends we hadn’t seen in ages in the backseat and myself in the front seat, terrified.
Trying to cue songs to places we were in: DJ Screw in Houston, Clarence Carter in Alabama, Bobbie Gentry’s Fancy when we pulled into New Orleans… There’s so much music that’s now totally fused with the time I’ve spent in America.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out on a similar journey?
As before: don’t use the interstates. Stick to small roads. It’s way more interesting. And don’t be too fastidious in your planning. Allow for strange things and people and situations to detour you. And talk to everyone you meet.
What could be more American than shooting a .45 Magnum with a stranger in South Dakota? I’ve been on similarly surreal trips, and that moment where fantasy and reality blur can be quite something. I think the visual diary does a great job of conveying the dizzying aura of such an affirming journey — how do you read the success of the project overall; has it shaped your other practices; has it inspired future works…?
Yeah! Cory and Kendra! They were the best. That was the moment when I realised I could stop taking photographs and just let whatever remained of the trip be a trip. You’re totally right when you talk about fantasy and reality blurring; we’d been driving for about thirty days at that point and exhaustion and mania had taken the place of common sense. It was absolutely affirming. I think there’s a video of me in a Member’s Only jacket and cutoffs firing a .45 Magnum and giggling.
The last photos I took were in a ghost town called Scenic, in the Badlands, shot on the same day we shot the guns. We snuck into an abandoned house and I was amazed to see all this garbage; a lifetime’s worth of junk piled everywhere. And of course sitting on the top of the pile was a book called “The Letters You Write”. I started feeling very weird at that point…
I think the project was successful. It’s now over six months later and I’m still digging through the material and still trying to figure out what was actually said or attempting to be said, so, to me, that’s a mark of success. When I came back I had this big plan of shooting more, but I’ve found that it’s harder to see a place you’re in permanently than one you’re discovering. So I think, photographically, I’m kind of tied to this go-out-into-the-wilderness-and-see-what-you-can-find mentality. There are projects in the pipeline that take from that approach: I’m going to walk the Cornish coast in May and try to build something out of that; I’m going to go back to America again, albeit for a shorter time, this summer. I’m going to try and get to Japan soon. That’s the next big project: something longterm and experiential in the north of Japan. I just need a wealthy patron to make all of this happen!
What’s next for Anthony Gerace?
Doing my best to stay busy every hour of every day. I’ve got a solo show coming up in November at Twenty14 Gallery in Milan, and a group show sometime before then, and for now I’m laying low, sitting in my room and cutting out tiny squares of paper and waiting for whatever’s next.