The Faraway Nearby: Peter Kayafas and the Road
by Allan Gurganus
Q: “Is it possible you’ve forgotten already?”
A: “That’s the way I am. Either I forget immediately or I never forget.”
—Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
During those hot Augusts when no one wants to be anywhere, Peter Kayafas makes his solo expeditions. He’ll choose a new American region to go and endure, explore, save.
Einstein has helped chart why such treks matter: “The eternal Incomprehensible about the universe is—its sheer comprehensibility.” The physicist assures us: our world’s greatest miracle is not its encoded-ness, but how much shows! The road is public, after all.
And Peter Kayafas has spent twenty years out there breaking the speed limit of the intelligible. He has photographed eateries and ruins and horizons, the starts of parades, the aftermaths of tornados, human faces, human backs. In terms both of mileage and vision, he has earned his Union Card for Loners. Other traveling sages enjoy cranky membership; Robert Frank and Walker Evans come to mind. But travel, openness, talent carried to the force of love, these have helped make Kayafas the Road’s favored recent disciple, co-dependent.
His work shows Zen discipline—it is both patient and instantaneous. Within these seeming contradictions, Kayafas has, over time, made many secrets visible. In his view, under his aegis, America’s secondary roads abound with primary subjects. If his photographs reveal a classical sense of form, an insistent purity of surface, Kayafas’s outlook has fought to keep itself militantly Democratic. Anything, around the next bend, might qualify as fascinating. O Public Road!—like some black-and-white Chinese screen—compresses decades’ travel into the folding wonder of a single trip.
Audubon rode horseback seeking all the birds of North America. We know he killed forty specimens for every one he salvaged in paint. There is no such mortal shrinkage in the art of Peter Kayafas. What is preserved would, otherwise, have only been lost. The photographer, in this summer’s leased car, lights out for the territories, hard on the trail of . . . what?
I asked Kayafas to explain how such stark, lyrical shots come his way. His explanation is reproduced here. It shares merits with his imagery. It is highly specific. It sounds wide-open with empathy. It feels both direct and personal. The photographer seems unwilling to claim overmuch for a Quixote quest that, soon as you’ve perused this book, will become part of your own baggage.
Not long after I hit the road each August, my left arm gets sunburned darker than my right. With car windows rolled down, with good music coming and going on the radio, backed up by a fishing rod and change of clothes, some extra film and the beer cooler, anything—good or bad—seems possible.
Exhilaration, speed, distance sharpens the eyes. There’s a wait until something happens next: the confluence of spectacular light, fresh scenery, meeting the gaze of people and their landscapes. I have no obligations beyond paying attention. The countryside can offer up one memorable experience then its occasional by-product: a satisfying photograph.
I made my first such trek with a poet friend in 1990. Since that cross-country road-trip, I guess I’ve driven nearly 60,000 miles. This calling is hardly a new one; I claim no franchise, no original concept. But I do have my own eyes!
In response to the critics’ “Hasn’t that been done before?” I find a new answer every 30 to 600 miles. My responses spring from how people and the places they inhabit keep changing. Such fast-paced evolving creates a relevance that’s self-replenishing.
These photographs promote no political, no sociological point-of-view, though they exist in a world shaped by such forces. They do not subscribe to any single spiritual disposition. (Though of course, Christianity and its visible trappings crisscross American roadsides.)
My forebears in this expeditionary enterprise, apart from Whitman’s poem, are American Photographs, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, The Americans, Few Comforts or Surprises. But, past any influences, these are simply photographs from the road, found during a particular stretch of time. Every one of them is, quite simply put: “of America.”
Somehow the road yields up to him its collective privacies. Billboards promise one thing—surrounding desert begs to differ. Out there, in Kayafas’s lexicon and lens, an elk can seem a unicorn. That hitchhiking con man might prove the Messiah. Atop each homemade grave-marker, a bead of our recombinant national DNA. Kayafas is especially attuned to how man-made objects interpret the very landscape that inspired then ruined them.
American happenstance favors this photographer. Small town festivals chance to start the day he hits town. As you’re about to see, he has bumped against then wrestled into permanence so many events and accidents. He encounters pageants hilarious, cemeteries unnerving. American orneriness seems zoned so close beside American hope. Wonders and disasters that’d merely smear our peripheral vision at 80 mph find honor here.
The photographer titles his images only after their pinpoint geography and particular year. The rest is up to us. Just as Whitman’s offertory road-poem can stir wanderlust in the most committed homebody, Peter Kayafas’s American pictures unseat us from our usual axis. Pilgrimages, often assigned, can also be invented.
Kayafas’s photographs offer the most exciting sort of news: items unfinished and therefore interpretable. They are mysterious invitations and—once glimpsed—they call to us for sponsorship, for contexts. We’ll all spin tales from his mosaic of American personages, places, things.
O Public Road! is a record of the Transient torn from the very middles of sagas whose endings we will never know. If you take a picture from a moving car, it’s hard to pull right over and collect all the who-what-wheres-and-whys. Not even Sherlock Holmes could now trace certain missing persons found here; not even he could locate most of these dusted anonymous locales. I see this as a license and a dare. Wouldn’t it be fun to invent for such images some echo in the form of fiction?
Kayafas gives us much to work with: deranged homemade signage, roadside car-crashes, the wayward working-person’s riven accepting face. These beg for respite from a road too public. Each longs for the shelter of some justifying words.
What Kayafas has mined from those 6o,ooo miles of American space feels like the marrow of distance. Some images show the equivalent of fool’s gold or those magic beans Jack thought worth his family cow.
Some images seem intimate as our bedclothes. Others feel totemic and alarming as some rock altar found on the far side of Mars.
Robert Louis Stevenson coined a three-word description for the joys and terrors of childhood. It incidentally sums up as in haiku Peter Kayafas’s textured, questing photographs: “the Faraway Nearby.”
O, public road! Ah, humanity!
O, weird and wondrous America!
“A Turn in the South”
A Film by Michael Maher, with photographs by Peter Kayafas
Photographer Peter Kayafas has long been fascinated by the earthiness of southerners, their hospitality and their hatreds. Peter travels down the South’s roads capturing the contradictions of the region. Kayafas says, “Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker… I’d say that Highway 61 is one of the most historically relevant roads in America due to the number of artists and musicians who’ve traveled along it.” Peter and travelling companion Michael Maher uncover many incredible moments, from Big Jack Johnson on his porch playing Catfish Blues, to meeting Joanne Bland who took part in the freedom march led by Martin Luther King in the 1960s.
Produced by ABC Australia; Distributed by Journeyman Pictures
BLOG: New York Times LENS Blog feature of Peter’s photographs from O Public Road!
VIDEO: The documentary by award-winning Australian filmmaker Michael Maher about Peter’s photographs and the American South aired on Australian television in 2008. You can view the 14 minute film here: Traveling South.