Artist: Jeff Brouws
Commentary by Susan Sessions Rugh
Professor of History
The snow-covered mountains make this image feel familiar to those of us who live here in the Wasatch Mountains. From an empty highway in Colorado, the traveler encounters the familiar red neon-bulls-eye of the nationally franchised Target store. Part of a series of images he calls the “Franchised Landscape,” this image is a political statement on the phenomenon of sprawl, where the tentacles of commercialism have despoiled the pastoral landscape. Big box stores, like fast food franchises, threaten to make all places the same, to rob them of their particularity.
The photograph of MacDonald’s is almost hostile in its slick surfaces and harsh street light in the rainy gloom. Brouws centers the image on the parking lot, and the “golden arches” form a triptych, hinting at the mystical draw of a visit to a fast food restaurant in the rainy dark. It lacks any identifying hints of locale—it could be anywhere in the country. Franchised landscapes efface the clues and marks of the local, catching us up in a national commercialism that threatens our very identity. The McDonald’s and Target signs symbolize the spread of invasion of consumerism capitalism powered by an appetite for mass-produced consumer goods.
The series of Franchised Landscapes developed out of Brouws’s photography of the American landscape that had its genesis in photographing railroads while he was still in his teens. Brouws was inspired by the Route 66 photographs of artist Ed Ruscha, (to whom he paid homage in Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations in 1992), and influenced by the New Topographic Movement. In a recent interview, he reflected that, “In tandem with that aesthetic growth was the notion that photography equaled travel—and those two ideas got intertwined for me,” (American Elegy, 2011).
Historically speaking, the American fascination with the automobile ultimately organized our landscape of roads, parking lots, motels, and fast food chains. Brouws’s images of vacant city streets, strip malls, fast food chains, and big box stores constitute a vivid social commentary on the larger historical trends of urbanization and sprawl. As social documentary photography, these images comment on the soul-destroying influence of the car culture upon the built environment. At the same time, the images ask us to consider what we see when we take snap photos as we travel. Do we strain to frame a pleasing portrait of our surroundings, or, like Brouws, do we notice the bigger picture that may not be so pretty?
Highway: America’s Endless Dream. Photographs by Jeff Brouws. Text by Bernd Polster and Phil Patton. New York, 1997.
Approaching Nowhere. Photographs by Jeff Brouws. With essays by William L. Fox and Jeff Brouws. New York, 2006.