I/Eye: On Photography

The Great American Bus Trip: Paul Herzoff at the Smithsonian Archives

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on October 11, 2009

David (1973) by Paul Herzoff

David (1973) © Paul Herzoff

In a recent issue of the British Journal of Photography (June, 2009), Paul Wombell describes the 1970s as the decade when photography became a “hot topic in art colleges”. Critics were formulating seminal statements about the nature of the medium; and photographers were undertaking major, book-length projects as alternatives to the constraints imposed by short-term commercial and assignment work. People were thinking and working—ambitiously.

This was certainly true at the ASUC Studio at the University of California, Berkeley (now called the ASUC Art Studio). During the early part of the decade, a group of young photographers there was doing remarkable work. Some of their projects—such as Roger Minick‘s Delta West and Hills of Home, Steve Fitch‘s Diesels and Dinosaurs, and Richard Misrach‘s Telegraph, 3 A.M.—are well known, having achieved the status of classics. The black and white photographs that comprised these books were all printed at the Studio, and their making was variously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Guggenheim Foundation.

But not all the projects that were printed at the Studio by staff photographers became books. I recently came across a trove of Paul Herzoff’s work at the Smithsonian archives online. The group of pictures on view there was partly funded by NEA grants (1971, 1973) and is entitled The Great American Bus Trip. (A number of the images were originally exhibited in a group show (1984) in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, organized under the rubric Exposed and Developed: Photography Sponsored by the NEA.) The work explores its terrain in a manner reminiscent of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers, relying on an active yet essentially calm method of social introspection. It ranges in format from 35mm to 4×5 view camera work and focuses on the peripatetic youth culture of the early 70s, that is, life on the road in what Herzoff called house trucks—buses or trucks that were customized by hand, sometimes laboriously so. They could be picturesque with their wild, hand-honed lines, and Herzoff frequently trains his camera on the vehicles themselves, as if they were a collection of large, patient carnival creatures, waiting on their masters’ whim for the next phase of the journey to begin.

Old house truck (1971) © Paul Herzoff

Old house truck (1971) © Paul Herzoff

The portraits are mostly of young people—though one, of a man named Gil who sits in a lawn chair admiring the view of Berkeley’s Tilden Park from his drop-down back porch, alludes to another category of traveler on the American roadway: the retiree savoring anew the youthful trick of extracting simple pleasures from small means.

Gil and his housetruck  © Paul Herzoff

Gil and his housetruck © Paul Herzoff

Annie Laurie, Alameda, California (1971) © Paul Herzoff

Annie Laurie, Alameda, California (1971) © Paul Herzoff

In portraits like Pye and Skye, we see what might almost be a staged reenactment of the Beatles’ dreamy anthem All You Need is Love—only the protagonists here (their real names were John Hardy and Patricia), were attempting in all earnestness to live this dream. According to Herzoff, he’d offered them a print some time after the portrait was taken, but by then the couple was separated, and Hardy decided to leave it with the photographer for “safekeeping”. Maybe Hardy believed that his days of wandering, far though they might take him, would eventually bring him back full circle to reclaim the image, but they never did.

Pye and Skye (1973)  © Paul Herzoff

Pye and Skye (1973) © Paul Herzoff

There’s a poignancy to these portraits now, over thirty years later: they’re affectionate toward their subjects (not a note much sounded in contemporary photography), admiring of the ingenuity required to live a life of adaptive independence, yet clear-eyed about its fragility. We wonder, for example, what will become of the infant lying in the “Mouse Bus”: the entire interior is swaddled in patterned fabric, the infant lies exposed—clearly the day is warm yet.

Casper in the Mouse Bus © Paul Herzoff (note: subject misidentified in the archive)

Casper in the Mouse Bus © Paul Herzoff (note: subject misidentified in the archive)

George and voldsbus © Paul Herzoff  (subject misidentified in the archive; see note below)

George and voldsbus © Paul Herzoff (subject misidentified in the archive; see note below)

Jim and grease (1971) © Paul Herzoff

Jim and grease (1971) © Paul Herzoff

Paul Byrd (1971) © Paul Herzoff

Paul Byrd (1971) © Paul Herzoff

We wonder, too, what becomes of the young men, who are often shown in the midst of constructing or refining their projects of house-truck living—they could be ship’s captains: investing great hope in small vessels, immensely competent, yet dwarfed all the same by the oceans they’re about to traverse.

The end of the continent (1971) © Paul Herzoff

The end of the continent (1971) © Paul Herzoff

Author’s note: Herzoff adds the following remark on Casper in the Mouse Bus: “We are hopeful for the future (now passed and past) of Baby Casper. He was born into a tight-knit and supportive community, full of creative energy and opportunities to join the high-flying edge of American culture. Perhaps I should dedicate the book to him.”

And I should add that one of the subjects depicted above (misidentified in the archive as George in voldsbus) has been for many years a member of that high-flying edge: he is Joey Lent, brilliant guitarist and composer, co-founder and director of the music club Strings (Berkeley)—one of the Bay Area’s best kept secrets.

7 Responses

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  1. JIM HERZOFF said, on October 12, 2009 at 5:17 am

    I THINK IT MIGHT BE TIME TO DO THE LONG AWAITED BOOK. I REMEMBER A BUNCH OF THESE PEOPLE AND I KNOW THERE ARE SEVERAL BETTER PRINTS WAITING TO BE PUBLISHED. MY BROTHER PAUL HAS ALWAYS HAD THE TALENT AND BEEN A FABULOUS PHOTOGRAPHER, BUT NEVER HAS FOUND THE TIME TO DO THE PROJECT TO THE END.

  2. Paul Herzoff said, on October 12, 2009 at 9:31 am

    I’m on it, Bro’…

  3. […] Sheila writes: Herzoff frequently trains his camera on the vehicles themselves, as if they were a collection of large, patient carnival creatures, waiting on their masters’ whim for the next phase of the journey to begin. […]

  4. paleotool said, on May 21, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    Great photos and a great subject. I would buy the book!

  5. Lloyd Kahn said, on July 10, 2010 at 2:36 am

    Anyone know how I can get an email address for Paul Herzoff? Paul, we are doing a book on tiny houses, including road vehicles and woud like to contact you re. yr. photos from 60s-70s.
    Lloyd Kahn
    editor of Shelter (1973)
    Shelter Publications, Boinas, CA

    • Sheila Newbery said, on July 10, 2010 at 3:39 am

      Lloyd, I’m forwarding your contact information to Paul. He should be in touch with you directly. —Sheila

  6. […] Herzoff is a Berkeley/Emeryville photographer who is particularly well-known for documenting the nomadic lifestyle of the late 60s and early 70s. His students include Richard Misrach. I […]


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