These photographs were created by compositing contiguous Google Street View photographs together into single panoramic images. They were created after I discovered collections of roadside signs installed by the Central Illinois guns rights group, Guns Save Life. The group claims its highway sign program was inspired by Burma Shave company’s “Verse by the Side of the Road” ad campaign of the 1940’s. But instead of corny, homespun jingles, the Guns Save Life rhymes attempts to use humor to remind motorists of their “right to defend themselves.” Currently there are about a dozen installations scattered across Central Illinois interstate highways.
In thinking about these odd displays I was reminded of the complicated history American landscape photography. Originally intended to be used as a scientific mapping tool, photography proved more useful in its ability to present an idealized image of the American West in support of Manifest Destiny. Photography’s role in disseminating that political doctrine was enhanced as photographic technology evolved to feed the public’s hunger for visual spectacle. Precursors to cinema, stereoscopy and panoramic photographs offered viewers more immersive experiences and were wildly popular prior to the invention of cinema.
With cinema came the invention of centrifugal space, defined by Edward Dimendberg as “pure spaces of passage devoid of familiar points of orientation.” Movies employing the U.S. highway system as a film setting became more common as America’s car culture continued to grow. In 2007 Google Street View, a feature of Google Maps was released. In short order, tens of thousands of highway miles were photographed from the perspective of an automobile and photography’s application as a mapping tool was fully realized.
The Central Illinois landscape presented in these photographs are as visually nondescript as any theorized by Dimendberg, yet thanks to geotagging the photographs describe specific locations at a specific historical moment. Further by appropriating the source imagery from Google’s application and compositing them into panoramic photographs, these images visually disrupt Google Street View’s virtual continuous space and present them in single, finite photographs.
The idealized 19th century landscape photograph displays seemingly empty, boundless and available lands, supporting the violent projection of state power and capitalist ambition into the American West, yet the violence is absent from those images. In these contemporary photographs, the landscape is fully tamed and plainly inscribed with jingles that present a paranoid fantasy warning of the need to arm ourselves in defense against a coming wave of immanent violence.
Road signs progress from right to left. Hover over image to magnify.