At first glance, Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker’s new monograph, The Way It Was: Road Trips USA, is a look at America in the 1960s, as compared to now. On closer inspection, it’s also a portrait of a young photographer finding his voice—and of a master photographer rediscovering a body of work from his formative years and using it as the inspiration for one last journey.
In his 20s, prior to joining Magnum Photos, Hoepker was an up-and-coming staff photographer at a German magazine called Kristall. In 1963, he was given a dream assignment to spend several months road tripping across America and documenting the country, alongside a staff writer (Rolf Winter). Almost 60 years later, in 2020, Hoepker made a return trip down those same blue highways, looking for America in the age of Trump and the midst of the pandemic.
Hoepker’s earlier black-and-white work is the main focus of the book. The color digital photos from his recent travels mainly serve to help break up the different sections. There are no captions and not much text aside from editor Freddy Langer’s excellent introduction. We are simply presented with an abundance of images, all of which are beautifully reproduced by Steidl—indeed, it would be almost impossible to improve on the black-and-white printing.
Looking at the 1963 photos, one almost instantly senses the specter of Robert Frank’s landmark work The Americans. Frank’s influence can be felt not only thematically but also stylistically, with regard to Hoepker’s similarly fast-and-loose approach to shooting.
I would also note another similarity, although this may be slightly controversial to say: Both books’ main strength lies in the editing and sequencing—how the individual images come together to tell a story. In Hoepker’s book, there can be up to a dozen or so black-and-white images laid out across a two-page spread. In essence, the individual photos are treated as fragments of a much larger picture. As a viewer, I often found myself studying the intricacies of these spreads.
Presented side by side, without editorializing, are subway commuters, churchgoers, strippers, motels, shanties, roadside diners, billboards, jukeboxes, cowboy hats, and quite a few American flags. By sheer coincidence, the Kennedy assassination took place during his visit, and its impact is captured in newspaper headlines that people are reading as they go about their everyday lives. Like Frank, Hoepker was also a European and an outsider – and the way some of the people in the photos look distrustfully or nervously at the camera sometimes makes the viewer feel like an outsider too.
2020 was also an extremely politically charged year, with Covid, BLM, and the Trump presidency at the forefront of people’s consciousnesses. Hoepker chose the place where he took his iconic and controversial 9/11 photo as the starting point for his recent journey. As Langer points out in his introduction, that space, now devoid of people, has taken on a new significance, denoting the emptiness that was emblematic of the early days of the pandemic.
The photographer lets this image, which opens the book, speak for itself. In fact, the only words by Hoepker are found in the brief acknowledgements section at the end, to which he adds a quick flash of humor: “I hope you all like the yellow cover, it was totally my idea,” he writes. (For the record, I approve of the yellow cover.)
Langer ‘s introduction, on the other hand, is highly illuminating and covers a great deal of ground. At one point, he pauses to consider a fly in the ointment with regard to the initial photography endeavor. Unbeknownst to Kristall’s staffers, their editor, Horst Mahnke, had been a Nazi propagandist during World War II. Langer wonders, “Were perhaps the pictures published in Kristall – depicting the downsides of the country– intended to diminish America’s function as a role model; was this a candid form of anti-Americanism in the midst of a Nazi environment that included reports by Paul Carell glorifying war which sent shockwaves through the editorial team?” Whatever Mahnke’s intentions may have been, ultimately, Hoepker was able to make the work that he wanted to make.
A film crew accompanied him on his 2020 journey, and a documentary film that covers the making of this project will be released soon. Sadly, in recent years, Hoepker has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and has been experiencing memory loss. He didn’t recall seeing many of the images before, much less taking them. But he has stayed committed to photography despite this tragic turn of events.
Ultimately, The Way It Was is a testament to the photographer’s spirit and dedication to the medium. Within these pages, one gets a sense of reminiscing and even perhaps a touch of nostalgia. The title serves as a reminder that our current era will, soon enough, become a part of the historical record as well. The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.
The Way It Was: Road Trips USA by Thomas Hoepker. Edited by Freddy Langer. Steidl, 2022. 192 pages, 436 photographs. Hardback.