Filmmaker and photographer Phil Donohue shot scenes along the famed U.S. highway to explore what we long for and leave behind.
How is it that imagery can make us nostalgic about something that still exists? Filmmaker and photographer Phil Donohue set out to explore the question while traveling with architect Andrew Kovacs from Los Angeles to Chicago. Donohue was documenting the transportation of a model Kovac’s office had made for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, but he was also trying to capture the nostalgia that thrives along the roadside of the famous Route 66, one of the original roads in the U.S. Highway System.
Donohue is well-versed in the highway, having grown up in Phoenix, Arizona, and driven the route a handful of times. He described the experience of re-treading that ground as “painfully nostalgic,” observing how the open land and active ranches of his early childhood had been replaced by big box retailers that came into the area and never left. Donohue said he became obsessed with the evocation of nostalgia, and “wanted to find a way to somehow put people back in a time and place and moment by showing [them] what it looks like now—even though it looks like it’s still of the past.”
As a result, his photos are temporally nebulous. The images of neon signs and window-lit diners could have been taken 30 years ago or yesterday.
Donohue says he wanted to avoid fetishizing the narrative of Route 66. “There’s a lot of photography about ‘(Get your Kicks) on Route 66’ and remember when everything was grand,” said Donohue. But he pointed out that a lot of towns along the route used to be sundown towns—places where black Americans were not allowed to stay after the sun had set. “There was a lot of mythology about Route 66,” he said, “that it was this great thing and this open road, but so many people weren’t able to enjoy that experience—and they don’t have the same nostalgia that a white person can.”
All of the images are shot on film, an integral part of Donohue’s vision. When he began to conceive the project, Kodak and Fuji, two of the most well-known film companies, were beginning to discontinue their stocks. “It started looking like film wasn’t going to make it,” Donohue said. This made him interested in using a vanishing medium to pin down feelings and places that were also transitory. “There’s a capturing of obsolescence on a medium that too could be obsolete,” he said. Nothing he shot in digital ever felt quite right.
One of Donohue’s favorite sites to shoot along the route was Oral Roberts University, a Christian college in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was founded by televangelist Granville Oral Roberts. The campus, according to Donohue, has “some of the most impressive modern architecture in the U.S., and it’s particularly impressive for that region. It’s so bizarre on so many levels.”
Donohue’s favorite part is the Prayer Tower, a glass and steel structure that rises 200 feet in the air and has an enclosed observation deck. The tower—and the campus as a whole—exceeded Donohue’s expectations. “There’s nothing like it,” he said. “You couldn’t get even a liberal arts school to get this wild with their architecture.”
But not everything along the route was quite so imposing. For the most part, Donohue said, the towns that line Route 66 made him sad. “There’s such a deadness in these towns. Not much has changed... In some instances it’s better, and in some it’s worse.” He recounted talking to people in towns along the highway, and how many residents had a sense of resignation tied to nostalgia for an idea of their town and way of life that has since passed them by.
Yet as a purveyor of nostalgia, Donohue knows that people can even long for things that still exist. He remembers having an exhibit at a shopping mall with photos he had taken of it over the years. “People would walk by the photos and say, ‘Oh my God, remember this?’” he said. “And they’re in the mall I photographed… 20 feet away from [the thing in the photo], but I guess because of the aesthetics it felt like something from their memories.”
He sees some of that in the fascination over Route 66 as well. “There’s this whole Route 66 culture—even new developments are creating their own neon signs to give you that feeling,” Donohue said. “And yet, the thing that’s giving you the feeling still exists! [But] people don’t necessarily want to interact with it. They want to interact with the imagery.”