Like most people I've been concerned about the divisiveness of America, often feeling like I'm living in a country I don't know or understand. So in late June when The New York Magazine contacted me about photographing their fall fashion portfolio and pitched the concept of road-tripping throughout the US to photograph diverse (non-model) American Women, I packed my bags and started downloading podcasts. Sheri Mendes, my wildly talented assistant/new best pal and I hopped in a mini van chock full of designer clothing. Ragen Fykes would catch up with us through the rust belt on this 15-shoot, 8,186 mile journey around this magnificent country that would leave us all forever changed.
The route includes cities I've always wanted to visit, have a compelling visual aesthetic, or are destinations where family members or friends could provide some boots-on-the-ground help. In between our shoot days, we drove 7 - 12 hours to our next location. Sheri rolled on like a truck driver, while I drugged myself on Dramamine and converted the passenger seat to a roving office. In our mobile cockpit, I could virtually scout locations, cast subjects, and produce from the marvelous glories of the road. Even with the tremendous help from the NY Mag photo department, often times we were still firming up plans the day, hour, or minutes before the shoots. Despite some subjects pulling no-shows, torrential downpour in Washington DC, heat exhaustion in Lincoln, Nebraska, and missing the opportunity to photograph a honeymoon suite in Niagara Falls—equipped with a heart-shaped jacuzzi— because Niagara Falls has two sides; The US and the Canadian side! Nevertheless, we persisted and completed all 15 shoots.
This is the depiction of one journey through the three distinct voices of Holly, Shari, and Ragen.
I I used my hometown advantage to photograph as many different women in as many different locations as I could finagle. This experience allowed me to create a wide variety of images to present to the team at New York Magazine and establish an approach to unify the portfolio.
When the boxes and trunks of clothing arrived, I invited some of my most fashion-forward friends to help me unpack and (gleefully) try on some of the looks. Like it or not, there is something truly transcendent about adorning yourself in the intricate creations of designers like Gucci, Versace, Prada, Hermes, etc. As my friend/wardrobe stylist Ragen reminded me, these pieces are works of art and the inception of styles that ultimately trickle down to inform the clothes/trends that fill our closets today.
Harsh sunlight, injured goats, a stroll around the neighborhood, a Prada jacket ALMOST crossing a sacred fire pit... these small and subtle moments helped bring to light the cinematic stories that I wanted to echo through this entire series. The United States would be a massive soundstage, with every city a new scene, and every subject a different character.
Honor Hamilton— a wardrobe stylist homegrown in LA and named after Bond Girl Honor Blackman from the legendary, Goldfinger, enchanted us with her 1970's Rambler styled home, completely restored to its original 1970s motif... but way, way, cooler.
It was truly a California Dream to photograph in a home with such fervent character. A pool, shag carpet, hanging macramé chairs, and an old white El Camino! Fine. Luxury was still living gracefully in our sweaty laps
It's the beginning of our trip and Sheri and I are already in sync as we venture to the free-wheeling metropolis, Sin City. It was 103 degrees, and you should know that our Portland skin is thin. We reside like vampires in our continental corner of this country. We hide amongst the overgrown moss and mammoth-sized evergreens and resit things like, GMO’s, President Agent Orange and… the sun.
We make the immoral pilgrimage from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on the same weekend that marijuana becomes legal and 4th of July soirées are all the rage(r). The opening scene of our LV narrative starts at the perfectly-seedy Motel 8 (sleeps 5 for $80/night btw, but has downright scary reviews on Yelp). Primped, proper and true as we possibly knew, we then hit the buzzing Vegas streets— amongst strollers, fedoras, blinking penis headbands and all. Thanks to our delightful subjects Khalilah & Edith for showing us all the red velvet ropes.
Welcome to the Mother Road. Route 66, the Main Street of America, the resplendent path that chaperoned our voyage to Santa Fe. For the sake of all things kitschy and cliche, we wanted Route 66 to be what our imagination expected it to be. One gas station, cracked roads, roadside attractions, a vast vehicular abyss of nothingness, a hopeful mirage.
We’d be doing you a disservice if we painted the road through Navajo Nation as just an Instagramer’s dream. The tragic irony of decaying, cement-painted teepees towering over a wonky dinosaur park, or a monumental dream catcher gives a blind eye to the real monsters that dance in the indigenous communities of our nation. But the Southwest is undeniably enchanting. The quality of light is truly magical. Peering out to the massive panorama we transcended into a Salvador Dali painting— the rock formations literally appear to be melting— and I become intimately aware why so many artists have been attracted to this "land of entrapment". With our subjects Zoe & Amy leading the way we descend upon the scenery that once evoked the marvels of Mother, Georgia O’Keeffe.
Everything really IS bigger in Texas whether it’s the endless farm fields and wild skies, or the mammoth billboards featuring weight reduction surgeries that fill the spaces between 8-lane freeways and the monumental skyscrapers built during the 80s energy boom. Of course Cadillacs, long horns, and the t-bone steaks are extra big, and as we learned from interacting with the caretakers of the @southfork_ranch, the actual mansion where the legendary 1980s TV series ‘Dallas’ was filmed, so are the hearts. Having free reign in an immaculately-styled, vintage movie set made us giddy enough to throw our hats over a windmill !😜
The next day we set out to scout Southfork Ranch, the actual mansion where the legendary 1980s TV series, Dallas, was filmed. I had pulled a photo of it simply as a mood board reference, but when we learned it was still intact and available to rent, we were ready to throw our hats over the windmill. Of course Cadillacs, long horns, and the t-bone steaks are extra big in Dallas, but as we learned from interacting with the caretakers of the ranch, so are the hearts. As if having free reign to photograph in an immaculately-styled, vintage movie set wasn’t satisfying enough, our quick stint to the Big D resulted in an impromptu reunion with two pals I haven’t seen in over 21 years. My old pal, Howie’s, lovely and ambitious wife, Kate, was one of our subjects. After the shoot the two of them and another high school pal, Rory, joined us at our Airbnb for a whirl down memory lane. It was such a cool experience to reunite with these now grown men who shared in some of the most formative years of my life. Rory reminded me that we were both nominated “Most likely to be Talk Show Hosts” in our senior year book, and while I always dismissed the award, associating it with the sensationalism of Jerry Springer or the red-spectacled tabloid queen, Sally Jesse Raphael, he fully embraced it. Rory perceived it as a an acknowledgment of his social and communication skills and his ability to listen with sincerity and empathy. His perception seems both sane and accurate. Damn! I wish I had believed this 20 years ago; I could have been Holly Jesse Raphael. -Holly
It is said that the highs are high, and the lows are low, and that NOLA celebrates them both. From Jazz to Zydeco, voodoo magic to catholic rosaries, and the lively French Quarter amongst the post-Katrina veneer, these countless juxtapositions that embody “The Big Easy” are what make it such a truly unusual place.
We spent the day withAyjshane, Charm, Denisio and Kenetha under NOLA’s spell, conjuring in the seance room and dancing on the balcony of the iconic, and said-to-be-haunted, Muriels.Where do you find the words to describe a place so unlike any other? From crawfish to frog legs, Jazz to Zydeco, voodoo magic to catholic rosaries. The countless juxtapositions that embody “The Big Easy” are anything but easy to digest.
From New Orleans we traveled northeast to Winterville, GA where we stopped at the endlessly enchanting Sweet Olive Farm Animal Sanctuary, whose magical farmhouse amid rolling pastures sets the scene for a happily-ever-after kingdom. As the sun set on a long day’s work of caring for injured, neglected and aging animals, we photographed three beautiful, salt of the Earth farm hands: Delaney, Melissa and Amy. After stomping through fields of cow pies in Louboutin heels, cradling chickens like babies and laying amongst a field of goats in Gucci dresses, we found ourselves wrappin’ up the evenin’ at a local karaoke bar where we listened to ‘Ring of Fire,’- Johnny Cash probably spinning somewhere in his grave.
Our stint in D.C. aka “The American Rome” or “Hollywood for Ugly People,” was a surreal and harrowing experience. I was weary from the road and apparently nauseated from heat exhaustion, and just as we began shooting on the grounds of the great Capital the sky grew dark and the heavens unleashed a fierce torrential downpour - the kind where it seems to rain from the ground up too. Thousands of tourists disappeared almost instantly as we sought refuge under an old elm tree, attempting to shelter our subjects in their designer power suits. Despite our efforts we were wet, my strobes no longer fired, and I feared we’d botched the shoot. THEN just as quickly as it descended upon us, it reversed, and the menacing clouds parted to reveal magnificent golden light.
Our spirits were further lifted by the subjects we photographed. Courageous women whose passions led them to the heart of democracy with real plans to deliver a better country: Malika, a Muslim American journalist for Al Jazeera TV, Shauna an environmental engineer making her mark in a male-dominated industry, and Molly and Charis who are working towards their graduate degrees to better serve their communities. With constant attempts to thwart progressive ideals, I was reminded that the Resistance is strong and that the Future is Female. ⚡️✊🏻✊🏼✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿⚡️
Our drive from DC to Buffalo felt like a journey back in time. On a two-lane highway embraced by the trees we rolled through the mountains of Pennsylvania. Each tiny town led us through the woes of old Coal Country, and in case we forgot, gigantic homemade “Make America Great Again” signs were a constant reminder.
I had selected Niagara Falls because I had spent my life believing that my parents had their honeymoon there. It was only after I returned that my dad informed me that they actually went to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, a distance difference of a 15-hour car drive. It was humid again and Mother Nature was likewise at her fiercest. The bolts of lightning began to splinter across the sky. Armed with a plan, camera in hand, and our lovely Laura dressed in Prada, we boarded the Maid of the Mist and survived to tell you all about.
After 3 weeks of riding solo with Sheri, Ragen hopped in the van and motored with us thru the Rust Belt bringing her impeccable + fresh eyes + a few rays of sunshine.
These are her words about Detroit.
“I selfishly exist in this country like a tin can telephone; the west coast being on one end of the acoustic chamber and the east coast being the other. The string… that taught supportive line that dangles like the electrocardiogram tracing of my existence to the opposite end, is the rest of the country. In my impervious bubble I laugh freely. I scoff freely. I complain of the outs, honors and disbeliefs in this bubble, freely. I call to the other side and have my fairytales improvised and solidified. I make no mention of the string. I forget about the string. I forget that the heart beat… the pulse of the connection between me and the other end.
I fell helplessly in love with Detroit before I ever met its grace. It was a romance that bore itself from three simple words, “I’m from Detroit”. An affair that started from decades of digesting The Miracles, The Temptations, Mary Wells, Stevie Wonder, J Dilla, Slum Village, Black Milk, Jack White and a barrage of other artist that remained in my mental scope. A deep attraction with a spirited authenticity that emitted from every being hailing from Detroit. A fondness that grew every moment my old roommate would emerge with a jug that roared, Detroit Hustles Harder. You see, I had eyes for Detroit before my tiny feet touched its robust soil. There’s an assiduousness that is deeply embedded in the fabric of the people of Detroit. It was the people of Detroit. It is the people of Detroit. Goddamn! How could I not be compelled to love it. I found that in Nisa. I found that in Megan. I found that in Jim. Welcome 2 Detroit.”
(In Ragen's words)
“I’ll start off by saying this; In my heart of hearts I was SURE that once we existed OUTSIDE of Detroit’s city limits, myself and our cozy van would be the only people of color I’d see. Matter fact, every time I emerge from a bustling city I rehearse the apocalyptic, Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, “WHO YOU GONNA CALL?! GHOSTBUSTERS” fighting styles/scenarios JUST IN CASE I run into someone who doesn’t “like my kind.” Be it a problematic way to exist or not, can one really blame me?? The road to Valparaiso is lined with real life Trump signs, real life horse and buggies, a real life McDonalds castle, real life realistic statues of people doing real life activities and to my very own astonishment… real life BLACK PEOPLE! I attempted to quiet the alarm that constantly jars my mind in a quaint space like Valpo. The ice cream was good (Valpo Velvet is the BEST), the people were kind, and I successfully avoided any establishment that Mike Pence MAY HAVE encountered. It’s typically fight or flight in these small-town landscapes. I wrestle with my irrational ideals instead of the beauty that occupies itself around me. I twiddle with what I suppose people assume of me. I can settle in this. I can settle in these uncharted waters. I can settle with being small town, me.
Less than an hour away, that desire to fight the flight all comes screaming back. We made a “pit-stop” in Gary, Indiana (and please, take a second to relinquish all the necessary side-eye, here). I knew Gary was real shit. I knew Gary masoned steadily after its industry ran astray. I knew, just like Detroit, that the people of Gary upheld its churning soul and strength that shimmered amongst the rubble of the city. I will say, as a woman of color, the inquiry frequently speaks, “why do they always leave US behind?” Damn, there goes those questions again.”
Next stop Lincoln, NE where we had the opportunity to stay with my older brother Jesse, his wife Meg + their 6 kids. Familiar/familial faces + a crazy fun house was a much needed respite from the hotels we’d been crashing in.
“Once we arrived in Lincoln... 103 degrees and humid, Lincoln, exhaustion overwhelmed us. No matter what task you oblige to, a depletion can strut effortlessly around you. We eyed each home as we slowly scoped our accommodations in Nebraska. Each humble house mirrored the perfect set of a TV sitcom. “THAT’S IT! THAT’S THE HOUSE!” We crept undeniably in front of a home that housed eight smiling faces; Jesse, Meg, Lilly, George, Ellie, Jesse Kate, Sam, and Luke. Each one of them smiled a familiar smile. Each one of them housed a familiar face. Each one them existed in that same wealth of care that Holly couldn’t help but demonstrate. Holly’s kin had it. Kelsey, Allison, Sophie, and Cecilia had it. The middle of us… the U.S. undoubtedly had it.
We can trudge through our scope with our dogmas, ideals, and skepticism. We can look past what we don’t want to see. We can poke fingers and blame… call it right. Call it left. We can conclude that its totally you and most certainly not me. We can exist in this place… in this very strong place and forget that the state of US lies not only on the other end of the tin can, but that there’s also a precious connection for the line that’s in-between.
There’s Black folk in Lincoln, too!” 🙌🏼
Sunday morning and we were on the road again. Ragen flew home that morning while Sheri returned from a 30 hr. “break” (she briefly went back to Portland for her bf’s wedding.) We ventured north to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota where we photographed two of the courageous Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) water protectors (and cousins) Alexis and Darlene.
Once again we arrived late at night. The sunset was beautiful, but on the backroads we quickly lost sight in the dark. Our GPS failed us and we found ourselves pulled over on the side of the road. Almost immediately an old truck pulled up next to us, and a local man asked “Can I help you? Are you guys ok?” It was this kindness and genuine care that would guide us through our time at Standing Rock.
The next day we met Alexis and Darlene at the Prairie Knights Casino & Resort where they brought along their cherished jewelry, belts, and ceremonial headpieces to augment the wardrobe. We then spent the afternoon photographing on their Uncle Syd’s horse ranch until the prairie sun set. Afterwards they invited us into their home for dinner where were talked about the impact of the demonstrations, and how they mobilization support from all over the world. Even so far from it, Standing Rock was one place where we really felt at home.
We traverse westward through North Dakota, passing by that monumental holstein in New Salem. I know this dairy cow well, I’ve waved at her from the window as we drove by at least a dozen times as a child on our pilgrimages to Minnesota to see our grandparents, but I have never met her. This time, Sheri and I pull off of the highway and make the slow drive up the steep, narrow, twisting gravel road to take pictures beneath her massive udder and to feel the fast wind whip through our hair. We are on our way to Cody, Wyoming the Rodeo Capital of the World, to photograph the 16 year-old barrel racer, Hadley. We intend to stay with my sister Julie and her family, but it’s fair week and they’ll also be busy competing with their market pigs.
Located near the eastern entrance of Yellowstone National Park, and originated in part by THE Buffalo Bill, Cody is a fabricated Disneyland-esque Wild West fantasy for tourists. During the summer it hosts a nightly rodeo, it’s home to the the largest firearm museum, and is the birth place of Jackson Pollock. Incidentally, across the field from my sister’s house lies the remains and historical wounds of The Heart Mountain War Relocation Center where over 13,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II - a number that exceeds Cody’s current population. After the war many of these citizens had nothing to return to on the West Coast, but were prohibited from homesteading in Wyoming (an alien land law that remained in place until 2001). After all, tourism is the town’s primary industry and the Old West facade crumbles in the face of racial diversity. Cody, Wyoming is a place where Americans flock to proudly wear Stetson and red MAGA hats with hopes of experiencing the last frontier of their Louis L’Amour fantasies. -Holly
Although it wasn’t intended, it somehow seems appropriate that our last stop happens to be my hometown. We stay with my oldest friend, KayCee, born two days before me in the same hospital, I have known her my entire life. Now the mother of three, she allows us to take over the basement/playroom with our wardrobe crates and by now busted up cardboard boxes. Once our subjects Chloe and Halisia arrive we pack up the van and head to Missoula’s favorite greasy spoon cafe and 1940s Americana time capsule, Ruby’s Cafe. Here I am channeling David Lynch, also born in Missoula, whose oeuvre has consistently offered inspiration to my own aesthetic and narratives, so when we wrap up our shoot (and slice of Ruby’s berry pie), we relocate to the train tracks and evergreens. As forrest fires rage on the outskirts of town, the sky is violet as the last of the day’s blood orange sun starts to sink into the horizon. While shooting near the tracks a man in a big white Ford truck screams out to us. With a newfound courage, perhaps from enduring the rigors of this journey, I scream back at him even louder. Rather than speeding off though, he turns quickly, driving in our direction and I immediately regret provoking him. When I see the Montana Rail Link signage on his foreboding truck, a wave of relief overcomes me; the worse case scenario is only a trespassing fine.
As we wrap this final shoot Sheri and I are both overcome by an urge to weep. We’ve given this magnificent journey our all. We’ve had the opportunity to reveal our best and brightest assets and the experience has both humbled and empowered us in ways we didn’t anticipate. We are weary, but after 30 days the pace of the trip has become our norm. In the subsequent days, idle time will produce anxiety as we recalibrate to our respective homes and lives. This journey and its route, like the veins through our body are indelible. -Holly
Chloe Sky Dittloff, 18
“I’m a member of the Blackfeet Southern Piikani community, and at the heart of being Blackfeet is the ability to strive in the face of adversity and maintain humor and compassion.“As a child, I faced a lot of the adversity early on, with my aunt being murdered and large swaths of my family ceding to alcoholism. I thought it best to play the harmless role of the jester — making people laugh in between their inevitable bouts of sorrow. I thought this was all good and fine until that sorrow found its way to me.
“I never want to be a stagnant person. I think you begin to fester when you stop growing — and I do not want to be the human equivalent of moldy Tupperware.”