Highway to the Sun: Truth and Fiction in Maureen Drennan’s Photography
by Jacquelyn Gleisner | Aug 15, 2017
In Montana, the Going-to-the-Sun Road traverses Glacier National Park along hairpin turns, where mountain goats live, and crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. Titled after this road, the series Highway to the Sun by the New York City–based photographer Maureen Drennan is a metaphor for an epic journey: In the summer of 1951, four friends departed from Hanover, New Hampshire, on a five-thousand-mile trip to Alaska, passing through Glacier National Park and countless other notable places. They kept a travel log and took photos of the sites they saw. One of the young men on this road trip was Drennan’s stepfather. While she was growing up, his coming-of-age tale was recounted to the point of becoming a myth.
Drennan described how she imagined these four friends “moving toward an endlessly bright future.”1 Working with an archive of photos and written descriptions, Drennan began to recreate images from the expedition, using a medium-format film camera. Initially her photographs were too illustrative, so Drennan changed her strategy. She envisioned herself on a parallel journey with an uncertain ending. In the resulting work, the places and people in the photos are not literal representations of characters or locations in the travel log; Drennan was more interested in blending the past and present. The images depict her understanding of the trip as a journey of exploration and invention.
On the road, the four men took turns contributing to the log, which varies in tone from factual to poetic. One writer diligently states the mileage and location in the text, and another describes at length a comely waitress. Drennan noted that more than one person asked to join the road trip. The four friends remained unaccompanied by others, yet Drennan believes the strangers’ enthusiasm reveals the idea of the road trip as part of the zeitgeist. Six years after this journey, in 1957, Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road was published. Being on the open road—as Kerouac, his characters, and Drennan’s stepfather were—continues to inspire similar journeys now accepted as quintessentially American.