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 used my hometown advantage in Portland, Oregon 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 NY Mag 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 Fykes 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.
Our lap of luxury occurred on our one-way flight from PDX to LAX. That's it. For all intensive purposes, it would be bed sharing, fast food, no food, no showers, dirty underwear (and we're not being kinky), lots of sweat, lots of smells, getting lost, losing time, losing sleep, and losing shit... and in the grand scheme of things, thats still pretty damn luxurious.
After contacting every single person I knew in LA to see if anyone knew someone, that potentially knew another someone, that had a recommendation for yet another someone with a 60s/70s LA style home, car or even an exterior of a building to shoot against, we finally arrived upon Honor Hamilton. Honor— a wardrobe stylist homegrown in Los Angeles 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.
How do you NOT have a blast in a home with such fervent character? A pool, shag carpet, hanging macramé chairs, and an old white El Camino! Fine. Luxury is still living gracefully in our sojourned laps and I'm still certain to take my multivitamins daily.
It's the beginning of our trip and Sheri and I are already in sync. Whatever vibes we’ve got going on, I have to admit, this feels like the perfect preface to a free-wheeling metropolis like Las Vegas.
It's 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. While basking amongst the deluge, we resit things like, GMO’s, President Agent Orange and… the sun. The sun is relentless and daunting on rain-soaked skin like ours. Therefore we learned quickly that the throws of hell (aka the whole month of July) hath no fury on a garment that refuse to protect our P-town coats.
For anyone that feels empowered to make the immoral pilgrimage from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, my humble suggestion is; do it on a major holiday weekend. Better yet, sojourn your expedition on a weekend that is congested with cars, human beings, dogs, cats, parrots and the like. Find any possible way to make a leisurely 4 hour journey, 8. OH! And by all means! Go the same weekend that marijuana becomes legal and 4th of July soirées are all the rage(r).
We set on meeting our subjects at our Airbnb…. Our 80’s porno, “bow-chicka-wow-wow”, just shy of a mirror on the ceiling, Airbnb. Primped, proper and true as we possibly knew, we hit the buzzing Vegas streets— amongst strollers, fedoras, blinking penis headbands and all.
Welcome to the Mother Road. We’re not far from where we started and apparently we’ve already made it. Route 66, the Main Street of America, the resplendent path that will chaperone our voyage to Santa Fe. For the sake of all things kitschy and cliche, we want Route 66 to be what our imaginative impressions expect it to be. One gas station, cracked roads, roadside attractions, a vast vehicular abyss of nothingness, a hopeful mirage. Sure, Route 66 can be that if you look for it… but it can also be a so much more.
We’d be doing you a disservice if we painted the road through Navajo Nation as an Instagramers 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 transcend into a Salvador Dali painting— the rock formations literally appear to be melting— and you become intimately aware why so many artists have been attracted to this "land of entrapment". With our subjects in pleasant tow, we descend upon the mesmerizing scenery that once evoked the marvels of Mother, Georgia O’Keeffe.
Everything seemed to change once we hit the state of Texas. Endless farm land, wild skies, and a pace as slow as a Texan drawl. Everything really is bigger in Texas … whether they like it or not. Billboards featuring weight reduction surgeries fill in the spaces between the 8-lane freeways and the glitzy skyscrapers built during the 1980s energy boom. We pulled into the city after driving 11 hours from Sante Fe to an epic lightning storm only to have to unload a stocky van filled with designer clothes in the torrential rain.
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
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.
Ayshane, one of our subjects, said of New Orleans, “the highs are high, and the lows are low…NOLA lives and celebrates them both.” You celebrate the life and music of the French Quarter amongst post-Katrina veneer. It’s so much more than beads and bourbon street.
There's a certain energy in the people of New Orleans. We spent the day with Ayjshane, Charm, Denisio and Kenetha. Each of these women brought a mystical air to the room. The magic of NOLA ever-present as we danced on the balcony of iconic, and said to be haunted, Muriels, and as we moved our way through Jackson square. As Holly delicately danced her camera through the crowd, it was beautiful to watch the women dance their hearts out to the sounds of an incredible New Orlean’s street band.
No matter what magic you believe NOLA to possess, it was clear that the magic was in the hearts of the beautiful women we photographed. -Shari
As we continued our voyage south of the Mason-Dixon line, we attempted to sync up our podcasts to reflect the regions. At this point were were listening to This American Life’s binge-worthy S-Town, a euphemism for "Shit Town,” which proved to be a nail-biting mystery, as well as an exploration or poor, white, rural Alabama. Subsequent podcasts about the Civil Rights Movement urged us to stop in Montgomery, where we arrived at that perfect confluence of a freshly washed, post summer-rainstorm and the golden evening light illuminating the bight white government buildings. It was Sunday evening and the city was eerily absent of people. As we stepped out of our van it felt like we stepped back in time. We stood at the steps of Montgomery where Martin Luther Kind Jr. lead peaceful marches from Selma for voting rights and were met with horrific police brutality. In Atlanta we found our way to his birth home, and the tomb where he and his wife Coretta Scott King lay immortalized. This experience felt particularly poignant at a time when racism and hateful rhetoric is on the rise. We were reminded how deep these wounds are and how far we must go to heal them.
From Atlanta we traveled north to to Winterville 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. After a long day’s work caring for injured, neglected and aging animals, we photographed 3 salt of the earth farm hands, Delaney, Melissa and Amy. After stomping through fields of cow pies in Louboutin heels, carrying chickens around like babies and laying amongst goats in Gucci dresses, we found ourselves wrapping up the evening at a local karaoke bar where we listened to Ring of Fire, while Johnny Cash spun in his grave. -Holly
Oh, DC… The only city where we really ran in to trouble. The irony. There is nothing like a torrential downpour, a stubborn officer nearly kicking us off of the capital grounds and a $150 dollar Lyft ride to rain on your already rained on parade. But our spirits were lifted by the 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. In a time when it’s often hard to imagine progress being made, after spending time with these ladies, I have more faith than ever. - Shari
Driving from DC to Buffalo feels like stepping back in time. Embraced by the trees that make up the rolling mountains of Pennsylvania, each tiny town leads you through the woes of old Coal Country, and in case you forgot, the gigantic homemade “Make America Great Again” signs are a constant reminder. We arrived in downtown Buffalo after dark, our GPS and the lamp-fires of a mini Lady Liberty led us to our final stop for the evening. The next day we made our way to Niagara Falls where the rush and roar of the falls shows an example of Mother Nature at her fiercest.
It was humid again that day. The bolts of lightning began to splinter across the sky. Armed with a plan, camera in hand, and our subject Laura dressed in Prada, we stepped onto the steamboat, Maid of the Mist. While there are many words that can describe the falls, only one word can describe a ride on the Maid of the Mist…wet.
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 thepeople 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. - Ragen
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 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 juggled that fight or flight as Gary maintains its settlement after white flight. I wasn’t of the sheltered mindset descending on a place like Gary, Indiana. 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.
With a purposeful intent to, “See where Micheal Jackson grew up!,” I saw a few things that glared much brighter than the always-remembered, King of Pop. You do more than cringe when you see a black male being pulled over by two cops. You swallow hard when you watch him keep his hands in plain sight… just in case. You cry when you see someone your aunts age strung out on more than you can name. You start to slowly sob when you watch dilapidated Black owned businesses with a small whisper of what they used to be. I cry for my people. I cry for my people every day. But damn, don’t I celebrate! I celebrate the strength of being Black. I celebrate this honor that we maintain. We’ve maintained. You can leave us amongst the ashes, we’ll always create mounds of diamonds. You can squalor about “your rights”, but we’ve transcended without ours. You can leave us with your broken dreams and my god we will mend them and create destiny. I see that in my people. I see that in you, Gary. -Ragen
The only thing that resonated between our short stint in Chicago and a nine hour haul to Lincoln was the hometown of Farrah Abraham, famously from 16 and Pregnant. And while I’m being completely transparent of my struggles and flaws, I’m commonly inundated with anxiety and severe panic attacks that tend to emerge like the wrath of an underpaid reality star… Holly calls it, “anxiety with a capital ‘A’.”
I managed to keep this debilitating worry the crevasse of my Carhartt pocket, but on the road to Lincoln that fear and loathing surely did materialize just the across the Iowa state borderline. After about four hours of driving, the road started to become a visually hypnotic white noise machine. While your eyes are being transfixed on the nothingness splattered outside of you, your thoughts… your fucking thoughts become this dreadful matter of clumsy “what if’s” that accompanies it. “What if I have a seizure while I’m driving… what if I pass out… what if I have a seizure AND pass out while transporting Holly and she never takes another photograph again?! Where’s the next hospital? What if there’s no hospital nearby and no one can save us in time? What if I’m the only black person when I get to this small town hospital?!? Am I driving erratic? What if I’m driving erratic and I don’t know it?! Oh my god… my chest… this is it I’m having a heart attack! I’m going to cause us harm! Danger! Danger!” and within a few moments the fear overgrowing on the inside makes a subtle guest appearance on the outside, “Hey, Holly… how do you feel about driving for a little bit”. No sooner before I turn off that hypnotic highway to mental hell, I’m crying from these farfetched and unwarranted fears in a cultish-looking church parking lot (hell 2.0).
Holly is the most considerate person. The wealth of care and kindness that exist in her, exist beyond words. There’s also a genuineness that resides in her. She is willing to aide the human being you are and encouraging to the human being you desire to be. After my fall off the horse (or the van), I got back on. I got back on because of the person that believed in me. The person that was empathetic to the human in me… to the woman in me.
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. - Ragen
There’s Black folk in Lincoln, too!
By this time we were so far from home… yet it felt like there we were. 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 a vehicle approached us. “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 was spent with Alexis, Darlene and Billi Jo. We met them at the Prairie Knights Casino & Resort, where they brought their cherished jewelry, belts, and head-pieces to augment the wardrobe. We photographed on their Uncle Syd’s horse ranch until the prairie sun set. You couldn’t put into words the beauty in such kindness, generosity and overall spirit of each one of these people. Even so far from it, Standing Rock was a place where we really felt at home. -Shari
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.”