Thomas Hoepker

Book Review The Way it was. Road Trips USA

© Thomas Hoepker

“I am not an artist. I am an image maker.” – Thomas Hoepker

─── by Elizabeth Kahn, September 6, 2022
  • Steidl presents, The Way it was. Road Trips USA, the resultant imagery from two journeys that Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker, made across his adopted homeland.

    Black & white photography by Thomas Hoepker, Children playing in a car wreck in a black settlment in the Mississippi Delta
    Children playing in a car wreck in a black settlement in the Mississippi Delta, USA, 1963

    Since Walker Evans embarked on a journey across his homeland in 1938 (resulting in the era-defining book, American Photographs), generations of great photographers have sought to capture the zeitgeist of contemporary America. 

    Such was the case for German photographer Thomas Hoepker, who, in 1963, aged 27, was commissioned by German magazine Kristall to ‘discover America’, galvanizing a journey that would result in an extraordinary body of work. Traveling the full breadth of the country, through towns, major cities, and the remote heartlands, he captured it with remarkable clarity. His perceptive gaze, unfiltered by romanticized notions of the nation, constructs a forthright portrait of a country at a key period in its history.

    Thomas Hoepker, black & white photography, Las Vegas 1963. Taxi driver with newspaper announcing the assasination of JFK.
    Taxi driver with newspaper announcing the assasination of JFK, Las Vegas, USA, 1963
    Black and white photography by Thomas Hoepker, Lady with US flag in the Fourth-of-July parade.
    Lady with US flag in the Fourth-of-July parade, San Francisco, USA, 1963

    Hoepker would go on to settle in New York City in the late 1970s, and after an illustrious career in photojournalism in which he traveled the globe; captured some of the most iconic images of recent decades, and served as president of Magnum for several years, he decided to embark on another road-trip across his now-adopted homeland, nearly six decades after his first.

    His initial stop, not far from his home, was on the banks of the East River. It was the same location where on Sep 11, 2001, he captured perhaps his most iconic image: a group of young people enjoying a break from work, seemingly unperturbed by the twin skyscrapers ablaze behind them.

    Color photography by Thomas Hoepker, rusty metal buildings and sign. From, The Way it was. Road Trips USA
    At the Hopson loft in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Home of the Blues. USA, 2020

    In his more recent iteration, which opens the book, the cloudless blue sky is the same, yet this time, the furniture is empty, the scene pervaded with a calm stillness that seems almost surreal.

    Beautifully presented in high-quality print by Steidl, his earlier iterations take center stage. Usually laid out multiple per page, they form a fascinating mosaic: black and white fragments of daily life across the United States. Much like Robert Frank in his groundbreaking book, ‘The Americans’, which he created less than a decade earlier (and which Hoepker credits as a major influence on his practice), Hoepker photographs with an innate perceptivity; uncompromising honesty, and at times, considerable dynamism, capturing with remarkable clarity, the intricacies of a vast and complicated nation.

    Black and white photography by Thomas Hoepker, Woman at a jukebox in South Dakota, 1963
    Woman at a jukebox in South Dakota, 1963

    In contrast, the recent color iterations are significantly fewer in number, and usually presented in larger scale, at times, a single image afforded a double-page spread. This formatting choice accentuates the contrast between the two sets of images: the former, packed with detail, characters, and dynamism; the latter, quieter, more reserved, and often, unpeopled.

    Maybe it speaks to Hoeopker’s differing sensibilities, for on his recent trip he was significantly older, and thus, perhaps more restrained in his approach, though more tangibly, it attests to the zeitgeist of the time, for Heopkers journey coincided with the first wave of the Covid 19 pandemic.

    Black and white photography by Thomas Hoepker, Men with Cowboy hats, USA, 1963
    Men with Cowboy hats, USA, 1963
    Black and white photography by Thomas Hoepker, boys, USA, 1963
    USA, 1963

    Like the early 1960s – a time of Vietnam war protests, the civil rights movement, and the Kennedy assassination, (which took place during Heopker’s journey) – 2020 was a time of tumult in the United States. Along with the aforementioned pandemic, it was the latter days of Trump’s divisive presidency, and the nationwide BLM protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd.

    Yet by the time Heopker set out on his journey, the protests had all but finished; the shadow of the commander in chief is evident, though only subtly: a peeling sticker on the side of a wooden shed, that reads ‘The Silent Majority Stand with Trump;  the beginnings of his much talked about wall on the US/Mexico border.

    Color photography by Thomas Hoepker, man wearing bandana over face, Memphis, Tennessee, USA, 2020
    Memphis, Tennessee, USA, 2020

    What is most palpable therefore is the emptiness. With much of the country sheltered in their homes, Heopker instead focused on smaller, more subtle details. Furthermore, though, like Frank’s iconic body of work, Heopker’s earlier depictions can be seen as a critique of the American Dream, in these recent images, one perhaps gets a small glimpse of what it was that compelled Heopker to make the country his home all those years ago. The striking rugged landscapes and wide open roads; on a few occasions, denizens, smiling warmly at the camera, and perhaps most compellingly, the concluding image: the Golden Gate bridge, set against a beautiful sunset.

    Color photography by Thomas Hoepker, sign, snow, USA
    Virginia City, Nevada, USA, 2020

    In the beautifully written introduction, Freddy Langer notes that Heopker never tires of insisting, ‘it’s not enough to give pictures good compositions that work. Rather, in order for them to be good they must also tell a story’, and in this monograph, the photographer has achieved this emphatically. For it is a story of contemporary America: a complex and vacillating nation, forever in flux, yet conversely, unchanging, and secondly, of an extraordinary and tenacious photographer, and his complicated relationship with his adopted home.

    The Way it was. Road Trips USA
    is available now via Steidl.

    All images ©  Thomas Heopker / Magnum Photos