The road trip is one of the primal photographic gestures. It has given rise to some of the most celebrated series of photographs as well as to countless clichéd and forgettable pictures. Thanks to—or maybe even because of—Robert Frank’s ten thousand mile drive across America which led to The Americans, it also feels like a quintessentially American exercise. The term also has an epic quality: it conjures up the idea of a seemingly never-ending journey. With his book SP 67, the Italian photographer Roberto Schena has played with the mythology of the road trip to explore a short (13km) stretch of road running through the mountains in northern Italy.
The books cover sets the mood: the landscape is wintry and barren and the air seems to be heavy with moisture. This is a book that is all about atmosphere. Although its title and endpapers (a reproduction of a map of this mountain road) seem to place importance on the particular location that Schena has chosen for this project, its subtitle, La strada della tramontana scura (The road of the dark north wind), is more revelatory of its nature. The book is structured like a drive from East to West along the SP 67, one almost entirely shrouded in a thick fog which only allows for glimpses of the surrounding landscape.
Most of the images in SP 67 are technically landscape photographs, but they reveal very little… the odd curve in the road… the foliage that surrounds it… always obscured by the incessant fog. This unsettling visual backdrop is punctuated by the odd animal apparition. This is what gives the book its rhythm: a pig running along a ridge on the horizon, a closeup of a horse’s head, a goat or some dogs picked out of the darkness by the car’s headlights. This creates the sense that this world belongs to animals rather than to men. This road seems to run through a parallel universe, a place that we recognise but where space and time are distorted and unfamiliar (another reviewer compared Schena’s world to that of a Murakami novel).
While Schena has undeniably created a heavily atmospheric world with this work, I found it to be a little too impenetrable. SP 67 is a slippery book that left me with a lingering sense of frustration. Like a dream that you awake from feeling unsettled, but, no matter how hard you try, you just cannot remember.
Roberto Schena, SP 67 (Rome: Punctum, 112 pages, 51 colour plates, 2012).
Rating: Worth a look