A great many photography books about Route 66 over the years have been imbued with the gauze of 1950s nostalgia and hyper-saturated color.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Edward Keating’s “Main Street: The Lost Dream of Route 66,” consciously or not, serves as the antithesis of those books and likely will prove polarizing among Route 66 advocates. Its 84 black-and-white photographs taken from 2000 to 2011 along the Mother Road depict a weary and grimy America ravaged by change.
Instead of classic cars, landscapes, affable business owners and the soft glow of neon, Keating’s camera captures images of abandoned buildings, hookers, broken windows, drunks, bullet holes, intense stares, dead animals, graffiti and old, fragile people trying to keep their dignity.
Among the images in “Main Street”:
— Confederate flags draped over windows of a house in Springfield, Illinois, the adopted hometown of anti-slavery advocate Abraham Lincoln.
— Dead animals dumped on an abandoned stretch of Route 66 near Carlinville, Illinois.
— A baby in a soiled diaper crawling on a soda-stained sidewalk as adults stroll nearby.
— The painted outline of apparent Mobil Pegasus on a gas station in Lebanon, Missouri.
— A teenage boy staying at unit No. 5 of Tulsa’s now-defunct Shady Rest Motel. A boarded-up rear window and a tiny television set are seen in his room.
— Hundreds of tiny American flags displayed behind chicken wire and the image of a sign that partially reads “Our Fallen Heroes.”
— Photos and newspaper clippings posted on a wall by an African-American family in Vega, Texas. The collage brought to mind the Robert Frank photograph used in the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St.” album. (Frank also proved to be an influence on Keating’s book.)
— An abandoned motel room in Holbrook, Arizona, where someone scrawled on a wall “Helter Skelter.”
— A man prone on a nighttime sidewalk in Winslow, Arizona, after being knocked out in a fight outside a bar.
— The image of an old man standing ramrod-straight outside a ramshackle stucco home decorated with Christmas lights and toy dolls.
The book is formatted so each photo resides on the right page, with the year and location it was shot printed the left page. Keating includes notes about each image on several back pages of “Main Street: The Lost Dream of Route 66.” (Disclosure: I helped Keating find the locations of a few images before the book went to print.)
One thing many of the photos do is inflame the imagination and curiosity. One is constantly wondering how the images happened, how these people found themselves in such a position and what happened to them after Keating departed with his camera.
Not only is the book not for the faint of heart, it probably is not for children, either. It contains the occasional frontal nudity, an obscene gesture here and a vulgarity scrawled on a wall there. It it were a film, it would be rated PG.
There are Route 66 fans who will dislike this book — some intensely. But even a Mother Road sage such as Michael Wallis long has said Route 66 shows the good and the bad of America, and that dark side never should be ignored.
Charlie LeDuff, an occasional collaborator with Keating on story assignments, wrote this in an essay in the book:
“This is not a hopeful work, but neither is it a funeral story. It is a book of the living. These pictures are printed on skin, inked in blood. They breathe. They reek. They are a testament of a generation lost, of a people on the drift. Keating is the prospector scrounging in the weedy culverts of Old 66, searching for who fell off and what got pissed away.”
But the most illuminating text is by Keating himself. In the afterward, he writes he was an orphan by age 15 and a full-blown alcoholic with blackouts by 21. As a young man, he traveled Route 66, trying to find himself but almost losing himself in the process. The bottom point came when he lost his car in Flagstaff, Arizona, after another booze binge. He somehow got to California, cleaned himself up and has been sober for 40 years.
In 2000, he decided “to photograph the damnable highway that nearly ruined me, and somehow saved me.”
What he found over the years on Route 66 was “devastation everywhere.” He added:
“… America was not growing stronger and none of the promised benefits had materialized, at least not between South Side Chicago and San Bernardino. Instead, the rich had gotten richer, and the poor had gotten children, and the middle class was dying, its throat slit at the alter of the money. And Route 66 was now little more than a catch drain for those who couldn’t keep up, its blacktop crumbling along with its people.”
Keating’s essay ultimately reveals his probable motivation for photographing the down-and-out along Route 66: He very easily could have become one of them.
UPDATE 3/31/2019: Keating has informed me the hardback edition of the book has sold out and that a paperback version will be available in May.