A Russian Road Trip Through Depression America with Camera and Pen
I’ve always been fascinated by writers who illustrate their own works. I’ve also always been surprised by the relatively few writers who take up the opportunity. That is one of the reasons my wife and I started See Double Press—to create a few more such opportunities for a distinctive dual-vision magic to emerge.
It’s a tricky thing to attempt, no question. For it to be worth the author’s while to become a visual artist as well, the text and the images must not merely harmonize stylistically—no mean feat, but not a startling one, rather more like matching colors and patterns for your bedroom—but dance together like soulmates who have long waited for this moment of union. Soulmates don’t need to be showy—their joy in each other can radiate with artless ease.
Prose pieces and photographic snapshots can dance together in this simple way, but it doesn’t happen as often as one might think. Most books of photography-plus-text that I have seen are not created by a single voice and vision. Rather, they feature images by an artist and written homage to the subtlety of those images by a writer who had no hand in producing or choosing those images. Fair enough—and many of those books are pleasurable, even beautiful, nonetheless. But too often the prose seems to me no more than a decorative framing of the art. The great example, to my mind, of a successful artist-author pairing is that of Walker Evans and James Agee, whose book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is equally moving in its portrayal of Depression-era America by way of Evans’ stark photographs and Agee’s luminous prose.
But there is another book set in the same period that also wins my heart for its wit and joy and ironic ingenuousness. Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip (reissued in 2007 by Princeton Architectural Press) is the photographic and written record of an auto tour through America in 1935 by two Russian writers, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov. They were sent to this country on assignment by the prominent Soviet photo-journalism magazine Ogonek. Ilf and Petrov were by this point famous in both Russia and America (through translation) as the collaborative authors of two masterpieces of comedic fiction, The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf (the former was adapted by Mel Brooks into a very unfunny movie for which you should not blame Ilf and Petrov).
For the Ogonek assignment, Ilf, an unabashedly amateur shutterbug, brought along his Leica camera. His un-posed and off-handed snapshots intertwine effortlessly with the colloquial candidness of the authors. Nothing fancy in either the art or the writing, and yet the book brings the reader to the time and place of the narrative with assured vividness.
Hope you enjoy these three examples: Ilf and Petrov