The nostalgia-inducing, expansive roadway known as Route 66 has been a pop culture darling in the U.S. for decades. But in photographer Jeff Sonnabend’s latest photo series and upcoming book, The Route 66 Primer, An Uncropped View of the Mother Road, viewers are left with an alternatively more grounded and realistic view of the renowned roadway.
Route 66 is often depicted as a retro wonderland, filled with a kind of charming hybrid of rockabilly and western aesthetics, ornamenting its endless stretches of road. It’s been cherished as a somewhat mystical location and an American symbol of freedom and independence.
Sonnabend’s images strip the pathway of its lore of neon pomp and vintage cafes to depict a more raw and unfiltered gaze at the crumbling infrastructure, abandoned businesses, and the “present day” Americans he has encountered while journeying along the route.
“I think that Route 66 occupies a singular place in the American psyche, a quintessentially American institution. I found that photographic depictions of Route 66, however, did not reflect the realities of current-day America. Instead, they seemed to focus on the neon, the ghost towns, a remembered yesteryear, complete with vintage cars and kitsch […] I wanted to show what was really out there on The Route. I wanted to turn a photo documentary lens on it,” Sonnabend says, speaking to PetaPixel.
The Route 66 Primer project found its roots in Sonnabend’s previous work at Interstate Magazine. The online magazine tasked Sonnabend with documenting America and Americans, or more specifically “showing America to Americans”. He then traveled around the U.S., collecting stories and snapshots of the people in the country. But in 2020, with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sonnabend needed to find a new approach to his work, and impassioned, he began to explore new ideas.
“In the summer of 2020, I was getting restless and wanted to continue my photo documentary work focused on America and Americans. Because the pandemic at that time precluded, in my mind, the type of in-person interaction I needed for my “people” photography, I decided to focus on a quintessentially American “place”, and Route 66 quickly came to mind,” Sonnabend continues, “Because of the pandemic, the photographs were initially just of “place” – landscapes. But as vaccines became available and face-to-face meetings seemed reasonable again, I resumed photographing people, too.”
With an ever-fixed vision to create an honest, accurate, and respectful photographic record of present-day America, the documentary photographer prepared to capture the true nature of the roadway and the structures that adorned it.
“I want viewers to walk away from the photos with an understanding that Route 66 today, in the here-and-now, is not a stretched-out Americana-themed attraction or merely a “look where we are” Instagram background. Nostalgia and reminiscence have their place in the human condition, but Route 66 is a real place today, with real people living real lives in a variety of different environments,” Sonnabend says.
To meet his goals, Sonnabend employed his straightforward methodology of visiting the various communities along the route and following basic ethical guidelines of respecting privacy and having a general openness towards his subjects,
“When I meet people, I am open and up-front about who I am and what I’m doing. I have simple, direct conversations. You will see that most of my people photos are not candid — they are not hide-and-observe street photography. They are more accurately described as environmental portraiture. So the photos aren’t shot surreptitiously, they are shot having obtained consent from and while interacting with my subjects,” he continues,
“If I ask permission and don’t receive it, I don’t take the photographs. Surprisingly, though, many initial refusals turn to consent after a brief, casual chat – no argument or attempt to convince anyone of anything, just simple person-to-person conversation. It’s wonderful.”
Sonnabend chose to shoot a lot of his work using Canon 5Ds: both the Mark II and Mark III. He also utilized two prime lenses, and Sonnabend tells PetaPixel that most of the photos in Route 66 Primer were shot with a Canon 24mm F1.4L with a few shots with a Canon’s 50mm 1.2L.
“I favor wide angle because it forces the photographer to engage closely with the subject, bringing the viewer along. Wide-angle photos are more of a view from the inside than a voyeuristic view from afar. Not only that, but my environmental portrait technique involves being relatively close to the subject and photographing while conversing. That requires a fairly wide-angle lens.”
Sonnabend’s images show big cities, rural farmlands, and middle-class suburbia. Viewers of this project are presented with seeing wealth and poverty, new and the decaying old, and simply experiencing “a microcosm of America, writ large”
When asked about what makes a satisfying image in his eyes, Sonnabend explained the conditions he’s most infatuated with
“I think a satisfying picture has to work on two levels: looking in the photo and looking at it. The first, looking in, concerns the subject matter. Is it interesting? Is there action or connection? Perhaps there’s some subtle emotion, like solitude or emptiness? The second, looking at is more stylistic. Are the lines interesting, the shapes? What are the tones throughout the photograph?[…] The question isn’t technical, it’s an emotional reaction to the photo as a whole, apart from the subject matter.”
Currently, Sonnabend is preparing for the upcoming release of The Route 66 Primer with the book set to be available in early 2023. In the meantime, Sonnabend is staying curious, open, and hopeful that in his goal to show realistic views of America to Americans, understanding, and acceptance will also increase,
“If one can begin to understand the immense diversity of American life along the Route, then one begins to understand the diversity of America itself. Maybe, in some small way, that understanding can inch all of us closer to accepting the diverse range of the American experience. Different, but the collective “us” all the same.”
For more from Sonnabend, make sure to visit the book’s website.
Image credits: Jeff Sonnabend