The American Desert: an Elegy to Friendship

Raymond Depardon “Monument Valley, the most beautiful one… ” From the book The American Desert. Monument Valley. Utah, USA. 1982. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos

America’s open roads have inspired countless artists and writers, the expansive landscapes, the empty highways, roadside attractions, pit stops, the passing ghost towns, as significant, if not more so, than the eventual destination. This summer on Magnum Photos, we explore the American road trips made by Magnum photographers in order to understand why the idea of road tripping across America has captured the imagination of so many: this article inspired by Raymond Depardon‘s book Le Desert Americain is part of our On the Road series. 

Raymond Depardon made three trips across America during 1982; the second trip was with close friend and colleague Olivier Froux, and the third, made after Froux’s death in that same year was something of a cathartic exercise.

“This was a mourning, a solitary journey, during which he followed the footsteps they had trodden together, a few weeks earlier, for Olivier’s first trip to the land of images: Los Angeles, Death Valley, John Ford Canyons, the beginning of the desert, Mexico,” wrote Serge Toubiana, a mutual friend of Depardon and Froux, in the foreword to Depardon’s book The American Desert. It comprises an edit of photographs taken that year, mostly driving across the empty expanses of America’s open highways. With the American landscape as background, the book celebrates Depardon and Froux’s friendship, and their shared love for image-making.

Raymond Depardon “We rented a car, a camera, a suction cup, bought a couple of photographic films and headed out together for the first time, to conquer the West”. From the book The American Desert. USA, 1982. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos

Raymond Depardon “Olivier in the Canyon de Chelly.” From the book The American Desert. Canyon de Chelly national monument. Arizona, USA. 1982. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos

Raymond Depardon “The trip was too short, we had to go back, we promised we would, the editing needed to start. We headed back through Las Vegas and the Death Valley.” From the book the Amercian Desert..

“I would like to be alone and think / everything happened so fast / I don’t want to look for a replacement / I know I will have to make this film one day. (…) Olivier was more than an editor! ”

– Raymond Depardon

Raymond Depardon “I am going to finish a trip / a disrupted journey. Less than ten days before his death, Olivier and I went together to California, where he was invited by his friend Jean-Luc Leon to help to edit (…)

Raymond Depardon and Olivier Froux made three films together, Numéros Zéro, Reporters and Sam Clemente. Working as Depardon’s editor, Olivier participated greatly in the process, making these films the result of thoughtful negotiations with the French photographer. “Our evolution, Olivier and mine. It seemed natural after three films made together, he had an influence on me,” wrote Raymond Depardon in The American Desert.

“He knew he might be wrong, and he wanted to process things slowly, question himself along the way. He was always searching for something. He believed in the film, listened to advice, could be influenced, then sometimes, stopped, because he knew he had found the right direction to follow. Because he wanted to improve the film constantly, this process could last 15 days or even more than a year. But, time was limited and he knew that sooner or later, he would have to stop. The film would be finished. We could have no regrets. He would have done the maximum,” he continues.

USA. New Mexico. 1982. Raymond Depardon “I drive up to Santa Fe / thankfully a few adverts are here to remind me that I am in the country of Western movies.” From the book The American Desert. New Mexico, USA. 1982. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos

USA. California. Los Angeles. Filming of a wester movie. US actor Rod TAYLOR.

Raymond Depardon “Olivier liked this picture. I gave it to him a long time ago. It shows Rod Taylor during the making of a Western movie in Hollywood in 1972.” From the book The American Desert. Durango, Mexico. 1 (…)

Raymond Depardon “A picnic. The desert is private and only a few dunes are nationalized.” From the book The American Desert. White Sand. New Mexico, USA. 1982. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos

The sudden loss of his editor was a heartbreaking experience, which Depardon sought to escape by making his third trip to America. “I would like to be alone and think / everything happened so fast / I don’t want to look for a replacement / I know I will have to make this film one day. (…) Olivier was more than an editor!” he wrote.

Conceived in the manner of a diary, The American Desert contrasts Depardon’s photographs with his personal notes. His musings serve as captions to the images, creating a narrative that connects the visual sequence. The reading of the photographs of empty, natural or urban landscapes are shaped by Depardon’s words and memories of his conversations with Froux.

USA. California. Big Sur. 1982. Raymond Depardon “Sunday, November 7th, 1982. I wake up in a wooden house by the Pacific Ocean. I enjoy a breakfast with lots of good things, pancakes, honey… I am in the Big Sur community. I wonder what I am doing (…)

“There are a few subjects I still wish to make. Will I still want to do them? Will I make others?”

USA. Nevada. Las Vegas. 1982. Raymond Depardon “8 am. A prostitute on Las Vegas Boulevard.” From the book The American Desert. Las Vegas. Nevada, USA. 1982. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos

USA. Colorado. Denver. Raymond Depardon “These are white people and their industries / there are 12 million unemployed people in the United States.” From the book The American Desert. Denver. Colorado, USA. 1982. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos

Also a filmmaker, even in his photography, Raymond Depardon captures a mood that feels cinematic in the complexity of emotions it conjures. “It is within this unfixed moment, within space and time, in the desert, on a road at night – which looks like the dark images passing on the screen of an editing table, but most of all an interior space, that Raymond Depardon photographer became once again filmmaker,” wrote Toubiana.

Here, we present images taken by Depardon on his 1982 American trips with their original captions. Empty roads, and expansive desert vistas feature prominently, interrupted by dimly lit scenes in lonely roadside motels, and small towns that punctuate the route.

USA. UTAH. Salt Lake City. Mormon temple. 1982 Raymond Depardon “Salt Lake City. Sunday, November 28th. The temple. Am I in love? I am surprised by my own question / no, I don’t think I am / maybe with a voice in my head the voice is important! To make a romant (…)

UNITED STATES. Arizona. Sun City. 1982. Raymond Depardon “Why do I make images? A trip without a camera / a trip without memory. To travel is a fiction.” From the book The American Desert. Sun City. Arizona, USA. 1982. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos

“Our evolution, Olivier and mine. It seemed natural that after three films made together, he had an influence on me. ”

– Raymond Depardon

Raymond Depardon “Is this a trip or a gateway…? Is this a childhood dream? My past is a trip! I visit The Alcatraz Penitentiary like a tourist / I feel a bit dizzy.” From the book The American Desert. USA. 1982. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos

Raymond Depardon “I drive, I drive until I am stunned / until I can’t think of anything else / maybe to come back to life tomorrow and taste a new day at the end of the highway in the desert / in the Death Valley a (…)

Through the photographer’s camera and pen, we explore the American West and Eastern coasts in the 80s, and witness the photographer’s mixed feelings that accompany this personal journey. The loss of his editor and friend Olivier Froux led Depardon to question his own motivations to continue with his film-making practice; yet, he continued to make work, galvanised by the image’s capacity to encapsulate memories.

In the conclusion of The American Desert, Depardon wrote: “There are a few subjects I still wish to make. Will I still want to do them? Will I make others? It is too soon to answer. So many things are missing from these thoughts, but I know that they will come back to my mind later. This is a too-short story of editing and friendship… Our films remain!”

USA. California. Los Angeles. 1982. Raymond Depardon “Tourists at Universal Studios.” From the book The American Desert. Los Angeles. California, USA. 1982. © Raymond Depardon | Magnum Photos

“This is a too-short story of editing and friendship. Our films remain! 

– Raymond Depardon

USA. New York City. 1982. Raymond Depardon “Wednesday 1st of December. I have missed my flight. I don’t want to come back here anymore. Why are the United States always such an ‘untouchable and reserved’ territory?” From the book The Americ (…)

Magnum Photos

 

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