A new photographic series travels the American landscape with an unexpected gaze.
Amy Parrish’s Places I Slept is an ongoing series of photographs made while driving across the North American landscape. It’s a project countless photographers have made for more than a century, often as some kind of “rite of passage,” often by bro-tographers like Ansel Adams set to profess their freedom by claim the land with their cameras. Parrish’s work is different. It’s quieter, lonesome, and solitary. Places I Slept, is, as the title clearly suggests, a personal portrait of America as illustrated thru a constellation of beds, cars, and twilighted landscapes. Having moved back and forth from India some years ago, Parrish walks the line between native explorer and tourist, struggling with where she fits, the cultures she’s adapted to, and whether she feels like she can call this now unfamiliar terrain home. I spoke with Parrish to learn more.
Amy Parrish in conversation with Jon Feinstein
Jon Feinstein: How did this series start?
Parrish: You know, I start the introduction to this by saying that this was a series I never intended to make. The “real” work I planned was a bit more romanticized, photographing landscapes and pairing those with poems which paralleled personal experience. I think this incarnation came together as a documentation of my journey— almost proof that, yes, I did this and I came out on the other side. In that sense, the pictures were intended only for my own reference.
Feinstein: What was the first image you made for it?
Amy Parrish: The first photograph printed after the introduction of the bound collection was also the first image I took from the road. But it’s when I look back at the photograph of a bed in Santa Fe that I think, “huh, I started tapping into something there,” and it has influenced even the work that I’m creating now. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was creating by compulsion rather than being stuck too much in my own head.
Feinstein: You mention culture shock being a major inspiration for starting this series.
Parrish: I’ve been moving back and forth between the United States and India or Thailand for a few years now. There is still an adjustment period (both ways) that lasts for a couple of weeks, sometimes longer. I remember returning from my very first trip to India and meeting an American couple over dinner within that transitional window. They ended up becoming good friends, but the way my brain was wired on that evening, all I could think was “they are so pretentious”. The thing is, they were not pretentious. Our culture is so focused on the “me”, materialism/consumption, and this imaginary ladder of success. It can be difficult to reconcile with at times.
In other situations the culture shock would affect me physically— I’d feel nauseous when overhearing empty conversations in a coffeeshop that revealed an overwhelming amount of privilege and waste. I recall my vision getting blurred when walking down an aisle of a big-box grocery store, overcome by the endless options and sterile lights. But more than anything else, tears would pool in my eyes each time I recognized that our society seems so disconnected from the tangible.
Feinstein: What do you think was the biggest factor in this sense of shock?
Parrish: I suppose the biggest factor behind this is likely related to some of the work I was doing overseas. Life takes on an irreversible gravity when you become surrounded by personal stories of abuse, sex work, kidnapping, etc. It’s one thing to sit in the comfort of your own home and read statistics about human trafficking on your iPhone, and another to be even in the periphery of such weighted topics. I’ll never forget setting the intention to wear sunglasses as I escorted a disguised friend to court, thinking it was perhaps one small way to protect my eyesight after I’d been warned that if she were recognized in that specific area, there was the risk of an acid attack. While this was a rare incident that certainly doesn’t define my experience, it does describe the contextual backdrop as I returned to the United States.
Feinstein: From the photos I've seen so far, and your words, these feel lonely, about solitude.
Parrish: What is really interesting about this question is that “lonely” is the first word a friend mentioned when she saw these, but I don’t relate the work with that at all. Being “alone” is an important element to this work but, to me, loneliness and aloneness are two very different things. I grew up on a couple hundred forested acres in Appalachian foothills. There is something deeply personal, almost sacred, about spending time swallowed up by the natural world.
Prior to this project I had been making work in India and, despite living in a crowded megapolis where people are constantly bumping into you, I somehow managed to extract the population and make images feel as if I were the only person in the world at the moment. I do the same thing when swimming in the ocean. I try to get myself out far enough and position my body so that, if only for a moment, there are no people in my peripheral vision and I can imagine that the empty horizon stretches on forever. I’m quite sure this is why I love spending winters in Maine so much where I can have an entire beach or trail to myself. I suppose it all stems from where I grew up.
Feinstein: How far across the United States do these images span?
Parrish: There are actually two separate road trips included in this project. Diagonally, they stretch all the way from Maine to Southern California. However, on the second extended road trip, a lot of time was spent in the Southwest which is where I experienced some of the most difficult, yet inspiring moments.
Feinstein: How important is the specific geography of each photo?
Parrish: Geography was mostly a challenge in terms of weather and I tried to design travel plans around that, but not always successfully. On my first night sleeping on a bus in Taos, the overnight temperatures dropped down to 9º F. The flue of the wood stove was broken and when I left, I had been coughing up blood from too much smoke inhalation (paired with a nasty stomach virus). I was in such a bad state that the cashier at a truck stop offered me a free shower when I tried to pay. That was, by far, the lowest point in all my travels but overcoming these challenges transformed into an empowering experience.
Feinstein: How do you see this work fitting into, riffing on, moving forward, pushing against, or being in conversation with the legacy of American road trip photography?
Parrish: I researched photographers and writers inspired by the American Road before setting out. I’m not even sure if I have to mention here how under-represented the female perspective has been while, simultaneously, this same muse has been wildly romanticized by the male gaze. Except in the case of Justine Kurland who traveled with her young son, all other notable mentions I came across included road trips in which a group of women traveled together. To me, that fundamentally changes the experience— or at least the experience I wanted to embark on.
In terms of moving forward (or perhaps pushing against?), a deadpan aesthetic becomes filtered here through emotive qualities of light and color. In several compositions there is a directness which is relatively new to the way I work (only dabbled with here and there) so perhaps I’m really just succumbing to it.
Feinstein: I love Justine Kurland’s work. I think it’s interesting of how gendered we’ve come to expect the photographic roadtrip and its legacy, with not enough wider attention to women making road trip photography. Robert Frank is almost always the first reference – like we’ve been hardwired to think of him as some kind of godfather to it all. While I love him, aside from this comment, I promise, I won’t bring him up!
Parrish: While my imagery does not at all resemble the work of Robert Frank, in some ways, I feel like I was seeing the world with a similar foreign and skeptical eye that he brought to “The Americans”. This comes out more in the tone of my writing and I’ve been critiqued for making America sound like a terrible place.
Feinstein: Can you tell me a bit about the prose you've integrated into this work?
Parrish: Text is a crucial element in the understanding this work. I think in the times that images do wander off and start becoming romanticized, words act as a way to bring a clearer sense of reality back into the picture. I have a collection of poems which was created during the first few weeks on the road, but when I went back through my notes nearly a year later, I realized the poetry was extremely personal and the journal entries, oddly enough, resonated beyond myself. I call these extended journal entries, as I have gone back to clean up or flesh out the writing. I only shared a small fragment of these which seemed to coincide with specific photographs…I’m not sure if I’ll ever release the rest.
As a way to describe without telling, I also include lists of gear I packed, the types of places I slept (gas stations, campgrounds, etc.) and even a set of safety rules I invented. You’ll see that I couldn’t fully shake those fears of being alone on the road and tried to balance that by defining my own security. Ultimately, no serious incidents ever occurred— was it because I was smart and cautious or is that risks to female travelers are over-exaggerated?
Dialogue comes into play at times. When someone speaks directly to me, those words are symbolically written in red. At times quotations are paraphrased, but in some cases language was so descriptive I tried to preserve it perfectly; like in the conversation between gas station attendants when I obsessively repeated key sentences in my head until I got to my car and could get them down on paper.
Feinstein: From all the images I've seen so far, there's a consistently sad kind of light. Sometimes blue, sometimes rusty, often muted, kind of foggy. Can you tell me a bit about this + your attraction to it?
Parrish: Most of these photographs were taken as I was bedding down for the night, or just waking up. Practically speaking, that’s often how light took on these qualities. Another coincidence is that in the first phase of travel wildfires had been tearing across the west (Calistoga, California got evacuation orders just a week or two after I left the area). Starting from, perhaps Iowa, the sun was orange even during midday due to smoke pollution. Another time I remember pulling over for gas and noticing a strange greenish-yellow cast to the sky.
Parrish: Ambulances and alarms started going off all around me and the wind blew so fiercely that pieces of plastic from the tire wells and undercarriage were peeling off my car. It turns out I was driving through a tornado warning. I think all of these visual experiences- sometimes side effects of disaster- left impressions on me; as have words from a mentor who provoked me to not just consider what a thing looks like, but also what it feels like. That’s always in my mind when I work with color.
Feinstein: Why the focus on places you've slept? What symbolism do you think that holds/ why is it important to this work and where you're at?
Parrish: Home is a recurring theme in a lot of my work- be it whatever stage or form in my life. My marriage dissolved the year prior to this while I lived in India, and I hadn’t maintained a permanent residence since that time. There were always temporary arrangements secured (an artist retreat, international projects, staying in friends’ attached apartments, etc.), but during these two road trips there was no home base for me to return to. These places I slept were the only places I had, which was both terrifying and exhilarating. Home became chiseled down so narrowly that it was realized as a basic form of possession and protection- blankets and a barrier. For a few dollars or an empty parking space, home could be anywhere I wanted.
This project was crucial to getting where I am now. After defying commitment for so long, I’ve finally settled down.
Feinstein: You're living in India now, yes? Do you see yourself returning to the United States continue this project or do you see it as being complete?
Parrish: I’ve certainly had challenges to overcome in India as well, but I’ve found a flow. The inspiration I find here is rich and fulfilling, especially when I can get away to the villages where there is a little more space to breathe.
I’ve considered returning to this project several times, and have been homesick for the road on many occasions; however, to go back now would be to change the story. This chapter is complete. Although I can very much see myself going back to the old school bus outside of Taos and spending at least a full month there. The experience beat up me badly, despite its magic, and while I did get through it, I’d love to get through it better.
Feinstein: I ask this in interviews from time to time: if there was a soundtrack to this work, who would be on it and why?
Parrish: Space Oddity, David Bowie
I think this encapsulates a similar sense of foreignness, wonder and separation:
“I'm stepping through the door
And I'm floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world...”
Country Roads, John Denver
I’m always saying that if anyone ever makes a movie about my life, there should most definitely be a John Denver soundtrack. “Country Roads” has had an eery presence— being the very first song I heard in a coffeeshop in India, following me on the streets of Thailand, and always bringing me back to my childhood home along gravel roads with views crossing over the Ohio border into West Virginia.
Hello Ohio, Over the Rhine
It speaks of a starting point-- I wanted to walk the roads near my childhood home. My brothers were allowed to go alone, but my mother thought it was too dangerous for me, as a girl. Finally, after much convincing, I was permitted to travel by bike (maybe reasoning it would be harder for someone to snatch me up?). Those rides alone on the open road were some of the most special memories from my teen years.
When I got a car at 16, I’d also hug the curves of Appalachian backroads, windows rolled down, hair getting tangled in the wind, howling back at the frogs and crickets and cicadas. I could be wild and alone and free. I still take the long way whenever I go back to visit my parents.
The back roads
I know Ohio
Like the back of my hand
Where the river bends
And it's strange to see your story end
Me and Bobby McGee, Janis Joplin
"Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose”
Cowboy Junkies would probably be a good fit. But, truth be told, there was a lot of silence on this trip. Sometimes I would drive a few hours before realizing that I’d forgotten to turn Pandora on. So make sure to put a few empty tracks in there, too.