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Book review: “Route 66 American Icon”

Here’s a sign a photography book is really good: When I first opened it, I gasped. And when my wife saw the images in it, she gasped as well.

Photographer Shannon Richardson‘s new book, “Route 66 American Icon” (160 pages, hardback, self-published, $66), will elicit that sort of reaction. It proves to be a testament to the power of photography.

Indeed, it contains the best photos from Route 66 that I have ever seen. Considering the prodigious talent that has captured the Mother Road with photography, that is high praise indeed.

Richardson writes in the book’s afterward:

I wanted to document the road in a cinematic and nostalgic style, using traditional black and white film with conscious attention to avoid anything modern day from appearing in the composition. Although the images are contemporary, the evoke the essence of Route 66’s famed past.

“Cinematic” is a key word. Richardson, a commercial photographer based in Amarillo, used an expensive Hasselblad camera and high-quality black-and-white film to capture fine detail in many Route 66 landmarks. He also framed the images well, and the contrast amid the images made them nearly jump off the pages.

Many of the 132 images — especially neon signs — were shot during twilight or darkness, giving them a film noir quality. Think of great black-and-white movies — “Casablanca,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and yes, “The Grapes of Wrath” — and you’ll comprehend the atmosphere in “Route 66 American Icon.”

A double image of the Blue Whale of Catoosa in Shannon Richardson's new book.

No people will be found in these pages, although one burro makes a partial appearance.

Instead, you’ll see doorways, neon tubing, peeling paint, and puffy clouds. A sense of decay and abandonment come from the images, but so do dignity and resolve — much like the Mother Road’s history.

My favorite images from Richardson’s book? It’s tough to choose, but they would include an empty barber chair in Angel Delgadillo’s shop in Seligman, Ariz.; the Blue Whale of Catoosa, Okla; a close-up of a “Curios” sign in Holbrook, Ariz.; and a tight shot of the now-removed 66 Bowl neon sign in Oklahoma City.

Highly recommended.

(Review copy of the book courtesy of the author. The Facebook page for “Route 66 American Icon” can be found here.)

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