Dylan Johnston’s Collection of America

At the start of July of this year I found myself in Atlanta, Georgia with the keys to a new car and a credit card for gas being paid by someone else. Living in New York and relying on public transport and my own two feet to get around had made me forget the freedom of having a car and going where you please whenever you want.

I was given the car because I was flown to Atlanta for a job. I’m a photographer and the client was going on a cross-country road trip spanning fourteen days and stopping to sleep in fifteen cities but driving through countless more. It was my job to document the trip, which was more of a rally of around 500 cars, avoiding highways and sticking mainly with back-country roads and always taking the scenic route. Beginning in the South, and driving North through to Maryland, across Pennsylvania and through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and finally West through Wisconsin, South Dakota, and on to Utah and finally ending in Palm Springs, California after a quick stop in Las Vegas, our trip seemed a bit unconventional and created a crooked fish-hook of a route rather than a more direct line most thought of when you think of a road-trip.

I saw every sunrise and well into each night, shooting digitally for the client but carrying around my film camera so I could document the trip for myself. Many days I was only shooting for the client because it was either too hectic of a day for me to sneak away and make my own images or we were on the road so long by the time we stopped it was too dark for my 400 ISO speed film, or I was trying to catch up on sleep and napping in the car.

Driving up the East Coast, which I’ve done several times, I wasn’t making many images. Growing up in Florida and taking several road trips North and South to Ohio and the Carolinas, I found myself uninspired in these areas because of the familiarity and crowded cities we stopped in. I was excited to see areas of the country I’ve never seen and to be unfamiliar in a place. Along the route I would often pass a “Welcome to” state sign that I didn’t realize I was driving through. This type of “autopilot” road trip; where I’m following a pre-determined route and unable to take my time and stop where I’d like, forced me to see many areas I would not have seen on my own and to create images in an entirely unfamiliar area to me.

Through small towns and back roads I was able to explore much of the “fly-over states” and see how beautiful they are. Once we began driving West along the Southern peninsula of Michigan is when I began making any excuse I could, or sneaking away from everyone else in order to make photos for myself. The benefit of traveling with such a massive group all driving the same cars made it easy to talk with locals in the area because everyone was curious as to what was going on. Several times I was able to make a portrait of some local people but much of my film was used on landscapes and little corners around towns or in restaurants. I was invited in to a local home once – there was an elderly couple sitting on their front porch near an ice cream parlor in Wisconsin. They were watching their puppy run around the yard and enjoying the “parade” of cars we happened to create for them. I walked over to pet their puppy and struck up a conversation with them. After making several portraits outside, the man invited me in to his sunroom they recently had built to show me a batch of peaches they bought earlier that day that were shipped from Georgia. I excitedly took a few frames in the room and was shortly on my way back to the car when I realized I was so excited to meet these people I left the lens cap on (this happens easily with a rangefinder). I went back and told them my camera malfunctioned and they kindly let me in to their home again to re-make my images and were sad to hear I couldn’t stay for a beer. 

From that point on, for the rest of the trip I carried my Mamiya around my neck wherever I went, including while shooting digitally for the client. The next week on the road would bring me through the Badlands of South Dakota which was some of the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen and to a rodeo in Wyoming just as the sun set, and finally a long and extremely hot drive through the desert to Palm Springs.

After driving through so much of the country I was fortunate to see dozens of different environments and lifestyles and meet many new people, some of whom I was able to photograph. This collection of images is a sample of the America I saw during those two weeks on the road.  |  @capt_johnston