Toxic Driving

American Photography and the “Oil Epiphany”

  • Christoph Ribbat (Autor/in)


The essay explores the American road trip as a central element of photography's history. It investigates the close connection between driving and camera work – and particularly the artistic and personal enthusiasm produced by this combination. Canonical photographic oeuvres of the twentieth century have emerged from extensive driving. Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, the Bechers, and others come to mind. Based on these examples and observations, the essay opens ecocritical perspectives on the Age of the Automobile. These readings emphasize the toxic nature of car travel and processes of standardization that complicate the legends of the road. Photographer Edward Burtynsky's twenty-first century mediations on the "oil epiphany" prove particularly interesting in this context. As this essays shows, however, the relationship between photography and the automobile was transformed much earlier. 1970s artists such as Stephen Shore and Ed Ruscha and the exhibition New Topographics developed new interpretations of mobility and more nuanced versions of the Great American Road Trip, concepts more concerned with the act of standing still.