It starts with an old photo of a man on a shiny car parked in front of a typical American suburb home, Sara Macel‘s photobook May the Road Rise to Meet You. That man is Sara’s father, a salesman who has been traveling across the United States for a big part of his life.
Before he would definitively retire, Sara decided to discover more about how his father’s life looked when he was away, so during the last two years of his career, she tagged along on his work trips, armed with a camera.
Hello Sara, thank you for this interview! What are your main interests as a photographer?
Thank you! It is great talking with you – I’m a big fan of Fotografia Magazine. The work and artists that you showcase are always so incredible that it makes me want to work harder. [Thank you for the kind words, Sara!]
I’m interested in telling stories with images. Photography is such a unique medium because it offers glimpses of a narrative but leaves room for uncertainty. When I’m working on a project, it feels a bit like trying to remember a dream or a memory where certain moments are extremely clear, but something is also getting lost in the ether. I like the idea of using ambiguity to engage the audience where there’s enough gray area for them to bring something of themselves to the viewing experience.
What is May the Road Rise to Meet You about, in particular?
Essentially, it is about my father’s life on the road selling telephone poles across the country for over forty years. For the last two years of his career before he retired, we traveled around together whenever possible, and I went back to places from his past.
The series is about creating a visual document of his life on the road as he wants it to be remembered and how I imagined it my whole life, having never seen it until now. It looks at the life of this one man in relation to the archetype of the dogged traveling salesman and how that life differs from, say, the explorer who takes to the road in search of adventure.
With May the Road Rise to Meet You, I wanted to explore the history of the road in American culture and in photography. I’m such a huge fan of the seminal road-trip photographic works by Robert Frank, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, and Alec Soth. As a woman and a photographer, this project was an opportunity for me to look at the lone man on the road with a critical eye. That man just happened to be my father.
What is your father like, and how is your relationship with him?
My dad and I are very close, but like many father-daughter relationships, we have our struggles. He’s an old-fashioned, hard-working guy and a really great salesman. Working on this project really was transformative to our relationship. It was the first time either of us gained any understanding of what the other person does for a living, and we found a surprising amount of overlap between the life of a salesman and the life of a photographer. All those long hours in the car together talking shop are my favorite memories of the two years we worked on this.
Why did you decide to do a project about your father?
I had it in the back of my mind that it would be great to do a road trip series together, but it was always one of those things I thought would never happen or I’d get to eventually. When he announced he was retiring soon, I knew this was my last chance. I was in grad school, so the timing to focus solely on a photo series was perfect.
Initially, I just wanted Dad to be this anonymous figure leading the viewer through a meditation on the road and the lonely traveler. But as we worked on it, his presence was undeniable. This was his story and it was our story of this brief period when we got to travel together.
How long have you traveled with your father to work on May the Road Rise to Meet You, and how collaborative was he?
We started the project in 2009 and finished in 2011. In the beginning, I’d ask him to take me on a business trip and he’d put it off or suggest staging certain scene instead. I think he spent a long time compartmentalizing his two lives as Dad and Salesman, and it was probably pretty jarring to suddenly have those two world collide. But somewhere along the way, probably after I showed him the first book dummy, he got really into it. He’d call me when we were apart with ideas for our next shoot. I still had to really push him to bring me along to meetings, which did happen and was an important part of the story. But in the end, it wasn’t about that. It was about us in the car together.
The series includes many photos of objects and places relevant to your father’s life as a salesman that look like clues you’re using to solve a mystery. It’s like you’re proceeding as an investigator. Did putting yourself in your father’s shoes help you realize things about him or the story of your family?
I’m glad that element of a treasure hunt came through. The first year I worked on this series very much felt like an investigation. The first image I shot for the project was the aerial view of his desk. When I was retouching it later, I saw that he’d written a little note to himself on his planner that said: “Recognition lifts the human spirit” [It’s in the small piece of paper which the scissors point at, between the last two lines of numbers]. He’d written that as a little pep talk for himself. Just thinking of this man I thought I knew so well writing that to himself alone in his office made me cry. It made me realize how much I don’t know and how much we’ll never know about the inner lives of the people we love the most.
Did you have any particular reference or source(s) of inspiration in mind while working on May the Road Rise to Meet You?
The Maysles brothers’ Salesman documentary about traveling Bible salesmen in the 1960’s, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, Mitch Epstein’s Family Business, Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home, and of course The Americans by Robert Frank, American Prospects by Joel Sternfeld, American Surfaces and Uncommon Places by Stephen Shore, Sleeping by the Mississippi by Alec Soth, This Train is Bound for Glory by Justine Kurland – all were big influences.
Is there any image of the series that you consider more significant for the work or are particularly fond of, and why?
The Towering Figure, Huntsville, Texas is a particular favorite of mine. I often am asked if it is a double negative, but it’s a straight photograph. It’s a view through the woods of the back of the 67 ft tall statue of Sam Houston by David Adickes that lives off I-45 as you enter Huntsville, Texas.
I drove up there thinking a shot of the statue from the front would be great for the series. In order to reach it, you have to pull off the highway and circle around to park and walk through the woods. I was walking up to it from behind and liked the way the light was hitting the leaves, so I took one quick exposure. Then, I walked to the front of the statue and took about 2 rolls. And of course, the first shot was the best. In the editing process, this image has come to be a perfect metaphor for the project: me trudging through the woods trying to catch up to this enormous and elusive male figure.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary photographers?
Christian Patterson, Amy Elkins, Kelli Connell, Alejandro Cartagena, Nate Larson & Marni Shindelman, Brandon Thibodeaux.
Do you have any other passion besides photography?
I love to travel and swim in the ocean and cook and spend time with my friends and family. I feel very fortunate to have one real passion in photography. It bleeds into every other aspect of my life so when I’m in the ocean or cooking or traveling, I always want to be taking a photograph.
Choose your #threewordsforphotography.
Memory. Melancholy. Fleeting.