Book Review: You Can’t Spell America Without EricJanuary 30, 2007
There’s an old song you may know by Lovin’ Spoonful called “Summer in the City.” It starts like this: “Hot town/summer in the city/Back of my neck/getting dirty and gritty” and soon follows with “All around/people looking half dead/Walking on the sidewalk/hotter than a match head.” This song popped into my head while looking at the pictures from photographer Eric Payson’s trek across America titled You Can’t Spell America Without Eric. While it’s not an absolute, many of Payson’s subjects appear worn down, a bit sweaty, neither happy or unhappy—maybe the way most of us look when caught unaware, and maybe the way America looks day to day.
While the book’s title suggests a road trip, and a number of the photographs are actually taken looking through the front windshield of a car, this is mostly a book about people, which is always the most interesting photography subject. And, in reality, these people could be from anywhere in the U.S., which may be the point. From a bald, hairy guy smoking a cigarette in a swimming pool, to a vendor throwing peanuts, to little girls playing in some sort of public area (a museum?), the photographs evoke feelings more than a sense of place. The American flags that spring up throughout only heighten the feeling of this being Everywhere U.S.A.
Payson’s photos have a throwback quality, as if they could have been taken 30 years ago, although it’s hard to put your finger on what it is about them that evokes that thought. Is it the fact that they often have a slight haze, whether via smoke or rain or too bright sun? Or is it that he often chose people or locales that make it difficult to pinpoint a time? (For example, people look basically the same in swimsuits today as they have for the last 40 years.) Or is it the manner in which he brings out certain colors? I don’t know, but it’s definitely there.
One of the most jarring photographs in the book for me was a photograph of Sarah Hughes, the figure skating champion from the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, riding in a car during a parade. (An interesting subject, famous yet obscure; I had to really think hard and do a little research to remember who she could be.) Many a photographer capturing images of America would make this type of shot—a smiling, waving, patriotic sweetheart—the norm. In You Can’t Spell America Without Eric, it stands out as the exception. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is in the eye of the beholder, and it will go a long way in determining your appreciation of this book.
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