Issue 14 Doubles Summer 2004
American Photographs: The Road
Ilya Ilf & Evgeny Petrov
In 1935, the collaborative satirical writers Ilya Ilf (1897–1937) and Evgeny Petrov (1903–1942) traveled to the United States from the Soviet Union on assignment as special correspondents for the newspaper Pravda. Shortly after their arrival in New York aboard the French luxury liner Normandie, they purchased a Ford automobile and embarked upon a ten-week road trip to California and back. Ilf and Petrov visited America as literary tourists, stopping at major attractions, staying in tourist motels, consulting with AAA for travel advice, and relying upon Russian-speaking tour guides to smooth their way. Like a good tourist, Ilf extensively recorded his trip with his Leica camera. Shortly after their return to the Soviet Union, the popular illustrated news magazine Ogonek—a Soviet analogue to Time magazine—published a series of illustrated articles entitled "American Photographs."1 Individual installments featured such thematic topics as the road, the small town, Native Americans, Hollywood (where they spent two weeks writing a screenplay for Lewis Milestone), advertising, African-Americans, and New York City. I first learned of Ilf's photographs from a review of "American Photographs" written by Alexander Rodchenko in 1936. I was intrigued by the images reproduced with the review—shots of rural highways and road signs that brought to mind the Depression-era images of Walker Evans. Curiously, the title of this series is identical to Evans's American Photographs, a landmark book in the history of photography published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1938.
For the course of two months before our eyes were roads of white concrete, black asphalt, or gray granular gravel and saturated with heavy oil.
The closer you get to a city, the wider the road becomes. Its lines run out from under the wheels of the automobile multiplying in number every minute, like railway tracks that increase tenfold upon nearing the proximity of a big train station.
Sometimes, especially in the mountains or national parks, we were suddenly enraptured by the emerging landscapes. Each turn of the road obligingly opened to us newer and newer perspectives of a beautiful view. The road, furthermore, led us from one landscape to another. It demonstrated nature to the traveler with the skill of an artist displaying pictures to a visitor at an exhibition.
Without getting out of the car, the traveler may similarly obtain the necessary quantity of gasoline at the service stations, which stand in the thousands along American roads.
Benevolently smiling, the gentleman extracts a tool from his hind pocket and in two minutes the door is in order! It's possible to go. But he doesn't want to. He wants service, a little more of this wonderful and, more importantly, free service. The traveler asks what is the best way to get to a nearby town. In response to this, he receives a first-class map of the state, upon which the man from the gas station sketches the further route of the motorist. On the reverse side of the map are the names of hotels and tourist homes. Also listed are noteworthy places that will be encountered on the road. And all of this is a free bonus for purchasing gasoline. With regret, the traveler abandons the hospitable station attendant, comforting himself only when after 100 miles the gasoline runs low, and when at that very minute it runs low, a new gas station appears without fail on the road, where he is met by the same hospitable man in a striped cap and leather bowtie.
After every thousand miles, it is necessary to change the oil in the motor and to lubricate the engine. This costs $1.50 dollars. A painful moment!
A foreigner, not having mastered the English language, may venture onto the American road with an easy spirit. He does not risk getting lost. On these roads it is possible even for a child or a deaf mute to drive independently.
Sometimes five, seven, or even ten roads come together. Then the quantity of numbers grows along with the pole to which they are attached.
There are many different signs on the road. They are placed close to the ground on the right side, so that they always fall into the driver's field of vision. They are never tentative and do not require any decipherment. In America you never encounter anything like a mysterious blue triangle in a red square, a sign that it is possible to spend hours racking one's brain upon trying to figure out the meaning.
At the intersections of roads stand columns with thick wooden arrows that indicate directions. On them are the names of towns and the number of miles to these towns.
In the town of San Antonio, Texas, posters hang under the traffic lights at each intersection: "40 traffic deaths for 1935 in San Antonio. Drive carefully!" Sometimes it is possible to observe a rather dark humor in inscriptions of this sort. In the east, we saw along a road the sign: "Drive carefully. Cemetery after the bend."
By the way, about cemeteries...
Taking the place of the old automobiles leaving service are new ones.
In general, a railroad trip in America is an expensive thing. A passenger bus is twice as cheap.
This picture [above] should be captioned as follows: "Here, this is America!"
Photos: Ilya Ilf. Reproduction of photographs courtesy Sasha Ilf.
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© 2004 Cabinet Magazine