essay – Text by Margaret Murphy – 31.10.2023
MARGARET MURPHY: RE-ROMANTICIZING THE ROAD TRIP
"In some ways, photographing while driving is easier than creating images with AI", says LA-based artist Margaret Murphy. She remembers her first road trip, which has changed her life in the same way that finding AI as an artistic tool has changed her life as an artist. In this essay, Murphy reflects on the history of the road trip in photography and declares its death while bringing it back to life while working with AI.
30 October 2023
In 2016, I took my first of many road trips—I moved from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, California. I packed only the necessities into my 2008 silver Toyota Prius and followed a northern-to-southwestern route I’d eagerly researched and planned ahead of time. It was early September, and I planned to be in LA by early October to move into an apartment with roommates that I’d met on Facebook. I had no fear, only excitement. I would stop in cities like Nashville and St. Louis, where I would visit long-distance friends, and stay with family in Iowa and Denver. More than getting to reconnect with loved ones along the way, I was brimming with excitement about photographing the journey. There was nothing more thrilling to me as a young photographer than exploring the country state by state with my cameras as copilots in the passenger seat.
I was excited by the seminal photographic experience this trip offered. As a photography student at SUNY Purchase from 2009 to 2013, I learned about the influence of the road trip on the history of the medium. In the mid-twentieth century, the development of the personal camera, commercialization, funding for national infrastructure, and the rise of the automobile resulted in the concept of the road trip. In my photo history course in undergrad, I remember gazing mesmerized at the projector being shown the black and white work of AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHS by Walker Evans and THE AMERICANS by Robert Frank from the 1930s and 1950s, and the color photographs in UNCOMMON PLACES by Stephen Shore and WILLIAM EGGELSTON’S GUIDE, both artists who were solo exhibited at MoMA in 1971 and 1976, respectively. The photographers from this near-half century were innovative in the way they used the camera, saw the world around them, and created impactful art from every-day scenes. They took pictures of signage, people at work, and the culture that was changing at a speed that felt faster than they could load a roll of film—none of it was considered art before then—in an artistic and considered way. Even as I studied their works in the 2010s, it was hard to grasp how shocking and original these works were to the culture they were created in. I was living in the future of images, thanks to the development of the internet and technology.
I shot 15 rolls of color film with my medium-format camera and easily four times as many digital pictures over the course of five weeks on my road trip to Los Angeles. Each image was a visual discovery: I was invigorated by making a sudden U-turn to pull off at an exit to photograph a motel with a wooden American flag hanging on the side of a motel in Wyoming, putting my hazards on in front of someone’s driveway to quickly capture the overgrowth of wild ivy in rural Tennessee, deciding to go to Las Vegas a day early to walk the city with my camera, or taking an unplanned detour to a roadside attraction like the Corn Palace in South Dakota, and instead discovering a museum dedicated to Christianity and the Bible. There was improvisational humor in these images and in the experiences of making them. Capturing something I’d never before seen was exhilarating with every push of the shutter.
By the time I settled in LA, I was eager to look through my files and negatives. I was proud of them. They felt significant—and they were, but not as groundbreaking photographs. They were records of an important part of my life: moving alone across the country at 25.
When showing some of these pictures in my first graduate critique, I had the somewhat disappointing revelation that my photographs were not about anything. Yes, they were documents of my personal journey across the country, and they were beautifully composed, captured, and printed. But they had been seen before. It was revealed to me that the photographic road trip was dead.
I would argue that this is still true, despite the many photographers who continue to make pictures in the style of these mid-century pioneers. There’s by no means anything wrong with capturing a journey by car as an artist—in fact, I strongly believe every photographer should. But to expect those photographs to have the cultural impact of someone like Robert Frank is naive.
The feedback I received in that critique was crucial to my development as an artist; above all, it was important to find my own voice and style. To have been influenced is to be expected, but what was I contributing to the greater context of photography and contemporary art?
After my road trip, Los Angeles itself was an inspiration. Enthusiastic to join the ranks of photographers who had captured California before me, I devoured more influences—Ed Ruscha’s EVERY BUILDING ON THE SUNSET STRIP, Ron Jude’s LAGO, Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX, among others. The rush of capturing something I was seeing for the first time in a new place was addicting, and I was prolific even after my road trip, but this time with my iPhone. Photographer Chase Jarvis once said, “The best camera you can own is the one you have with you,” and as camera phone technology improved, my ability to constantly take pictures progressed alongside.
I carried ideas of accessibility, meaningful concepts, and embracing technology through my MFA in Photography at the University of Hartford’s limited residency program, encouraged by guest lecturers and my teachers, artists, and writers like Irina Rozovsky, Wiebke Loeper, Michael Schaefer, Michael Famighetti, and Joerg Colberg. This primed me perfectly for my journey into NFTs and Web3. Not long after, in the summer of 2022, I would discover the tool that would change my entire identity as an artist.
I was introduced to the text-to-image artificial intelligence software, Midjourney. Intimidated by anything to do with coding, this was the entry point I needed to begin playing around with AI. And just like my mobile camera, I could have it with me everywhere via the Discord app.
Project-wise, my passion for cultural commentary through conceptual art felt right at home, bolstered by this brand new technology. The element of chance, thanks primarily to the nature of AI generation without explicit knowledge of the data sets Midjourney is trained on, felt like the unexpected photographic encounters of my road trips, often impossible to recreate. The thrill of an image revealing itself was familiar, and I embraced it.
While I have yet to take a road trip since I began working with AI, I have made various series of images with Midjourney. I am able to make hundreds of images with simple, user-friendly software in days rather than weeks or months with a camera. Photography is expensive. Film, processing, scanning—what I spend on my Midjourney subscription in a year would not even cover those costs. Many folks may ask me why I do not train an AI on my own images. For me, it’s about the element of the unexpected that is akin to photographing on the road. Stephen Shore, while making UNCOMMON PLACES, brought a point-and-shoot camera with him. He wanted the photographs to feel like pictures taken by tourists, taken by anyone, contributing conceptually to the project (which would later be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art). Like Shore, I choose my tools carefully, considering the relationship between the way the work is made and its meaning. I have never trained my own AI because all outputs would be predetermined based on the training data; like a road trip, I prefer to encounter a visual scene that I could have in no way expected.
In some ways, photographing while driving is easier than creating images with AI. Pictures present themselves to you as you cruise along the asphalt or slowly wander through side alleys on a walk to stretch your legs. It’s hard not to take a photograph. Creating scenes of a road trip with AI is challenging. It’s not enough to simply “imagine/” what you want Midjourney to make; you have to consider the way you want to see it. What’s the time of day? The location? Are there people? What season? Or perhaps, even more challenging but possibly more rewarding, you don’t know what you want to see, but you still need the AI to show it to you. That still involves you, the prompter, choosing a place to begin.
It's at these beginning points that I bring my experience of the road trip into my AI creations. I remember my time travelling alone as a woman artist and bring these memories as the seeds that grow into my AI-generated artworks. But I also appreciate the things AI shows me that I never get to see. The pictures I couldn’t pull over fast enough to take, or when I wasn’t in the driver’s seat, or I was too tired or needed to stick to the itinerary—AI allows me the chance to reunite with photographs I missed.
With AI, I can imagine what my road trip may have looked like in the 1970s along Shore or Eggelston in the same areas that I’ve trekked through in my 2008 pilgrimage. David Campany mentions in his essay from THE OPEN ROAD: PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE AMERICAN ROAD TRIP that “one of the major attractions of the American road trip has become the fantasy of time travel,” which is all the more accessible through text-to-image AI.
I don’t believe that AI will replace the experience of a road trip. I hope people still take their cameras with them to commemorate such a special kind of experience. A computer cannot replicate a life-altering journey of independence, foster connections with friends in new cities, or take in the natural beauty of the world. I’ve had these experiences and will always be grateful for them. But what AI can offer and has offered me is a different kind of freedom and enrichment as an artist. The way I feel about creating images with AI is how I felt when I first watched a black-and-white darkroom print reveal in a developer bath at 14 years old. But instead of something I saw in the world, it’s something I saw in my mind's eye.
This series, RE: ROAD TRIP, is informed by the history of art that I am so passionate about, my love of technology as self-expression, and the experiences I’ve had as a young artist living her life. I think that’s what every road trip project should strive for, camera or computer-made.