Road Tripping Across 1980s America

Road Tripping Across 1980s America

After graduating university, photographer Sage Sohier set forth on a series of adventures with nothing but a paper map as her guide.

At the outset of the pandemic, American photographer Sage Sohier turned her gaze towards the past, delving into the furthest reaches of her archive to unearth never before seen images from her first major project, Americans Seen, an environmental portrait of a new generation coming of age at the end of the analogue era.

After graduating Harvard University in the late ‘70s, Sohier set forth on a series of adventures with nothing but a paper map as her guide. Between 1979–85 she traversed the back roads of the nation in pursuit of her dream: a portrait of America as a meditation on the relationship between people and place.

Fascinated by the way photographers like Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Diane Arbus used the camera to engage with strangers and the world, Sohier moved intuitively, preferring to allow the scene to unfold so that her engagement with strangers became wholly natural. She was drawn to kids and teens who were fully outside, photographing them playing on the streets, in their homes and neighbourhoods, occasionally encountered random adults along the way.

With the passage of time, much has changed, adding another layer of historical resonance to Sohier’s tough and tender portrait of Gen X in their formative years, capturing the freewheeling spirit of running the streets without supervision. With the new exhibition and book, Passing Time, she shares images that evoke the spirit of “the 1900s” in all their vintage glory.

Not much older than kids she photographed, Sohier could easily relate to the “on your own” ethos of the times. She started driving stick at age 12 on the back roads of Vermont, got her license at 15, and embarked on a five-week cross country road trip the summer after her freshman year of college.

“I had a good sense of direction, could read maps, and was not afraid of getting lost,” she says. “There is something about having a camera around your neck that gives one permission to ask people if you can photograph them, and that makes one less afraid to venture into situations one wouldn’t normally venture into. When you ask people if you can please photograph them and they say yes, one is being given an entrée—if only for a brief time—into their world.”

Recognising she was a visitor, Sohier acted accordingly, taking great care to create mutuality through a collaborative approach to image making to bridge the divide. “You talk to them, sometimes see the inside of their house, and are given a license to express a real interest in them and stare at them (through the viewfinder) for a while,” she says. “You start to gain an understanding of what lives different from your own look like.”

With age, comes refinement born of slow living. While making these photographs, Sohier far outpaced what she could develop and many images had never even been printed before. With the benefit of time, old disappointments have been forgotten and perfectionist tendencies have been set aside so that what remains is a vision of youth looking back at itself.

Passing Time is on view February 1–March 2, 2024 at Blue Sky Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts in Portland. The book is published by Nazraeli Press.

The exhibition is also on view through April 27, 2024, at Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, California.

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