On the Road

Droning with engine noise, the U.S. 80 transports motorists East to West past small silent towns on its roadside. Few disturb their Southern slumber. Inspired by the Americana genre, British photographers William Eckersley and Alex Shields took a road trip.

Author: Marina Kolobova

Photo credits: William Eckersley and Alexander Shields

Embarking on a new project, William Eckersley and Alexander Shields put the pedal to the floor.  Flying down the highway, they considered photographing a shooting range for their new book ‘U.S.80’, a documentation of their trip, when they ran out of gas. William waited in the car at the gas station while Alexander went to pay. Alexander would come back a little later than expected. With a Colt 45.

As it turns out William’s colleague had enquired about the location of the nearest range inside the station. “You want to see a gun?” said Tommy, one of the other customers, “I’ve got one right here.” He then proceeded to pose with it against his head for the photographers.

William recalls this spontaneous moment as “slightly voyeuristic,” “from another world.” Working with a large format camera, the photographer relies on contingency. His 30-year-old lens has a longer exposure time than digital equipment. Every click has to be perfectly timed.

His camera gives ‘U.S.80’ a cinematic quality. “ ‘Paris Texas’ is such a saturated, colorful film,” William says of his inspiration, “‘Vanishing Point’ and ‘Easy Rider’ as well, they have an old-fashioned look.” True to this style, William’s road-side landscapes have an uncomfortable, forgotten quality. A Japanese weed consumes an American forest. A purple sky looms over a rockabilly gas station with a Jesus is Coming billboard.

Alexander’s portraiture offsets William’s eerie panoramas. “Every character we met, every person was amazingly kind and willing to talk,” says William, “Among them were some extreme stories.” At the Touchstone Museum of Wildlife and Art in Eastwood, Louisiana, they met Lura. Inside her family museum are dozens of stuffed animals. The taxidermy stands against a painted safari backdrop. She poses with her exhibition pieces in bright purple suit and looks into the camera.

Searching for moments of tension and danger, William and Alexander, who self-published ‘U.S.80’, had to face uncertainty. William says the project came from “an acceptance that if you want to get ahead, you have to take risks.” William is also almost completely self-trained. “My father gave me a camera for Christmas when I was 15,” the photographer recalls.

Working with Alexander, William became a Stucco Press publisher when the duo undertook a project shooting London’s abandoned buildings. It took them to Victorian mental hospitals, old school rooms and squat houses full of damp cigarette butts. Their first book, ‘Left London’ is a concoction of litter, rot and peeling wallpaper, mysteriously arranged to reveal some kind of strange, dilapidated beauty.

Returned from his trip across the Atlantic, William is now back in London where his art career began. Here, he patiently and modestly awaits the timely opening of the ‘U.S.80: Exotic Country’ exhibition on Oct. 13 at Cole Contemporary, Little Portland Street, London. After months of detailed layout work, he looks back amazed that the book is finally finished, complete with an introduction by respected British journalist Jon Snow. “It’s like a garden,” he says, “You get this acorn of an idea and it grows. Then it just has a life of its own.”

For more information see: www.stuccopress.com

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