Mississippi, 2011-2018 © Jessica Lange, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

Jessica Lange's American Photo Story

The actress' black and white photography is now on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York.

by Nadja Sayej
Dec 15 2019, 10:30am

Mississippi, 2011-2018 © Jessica Lange, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

When we think of great actors, it is usually for the magic they create in front of the camera. But some are talented behind it, too. Jessica Lange is one of them. The American Horror Story star—currently playing the Emmy-winning role of Dusty Jackson on Netflix's The Politician—keeps a camera (a Leica) by her side when traveling. She is now showing a selection of her black and white photographs at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City until January 18.

Highway 61,” as it’s called, is a tribute to the road trip. Since growing up in northern Minnesota, Lange has had an affinity for small towns, ghost towns, and the placid countryside (she recently released a related photobook with PowerHouse Books). Over the past seven years, she has taken countless road trips on Highway 61, which starts near Minneapolis, and has driven throughout the Midwest and the South, while blaring classical music in her 1967 Mercedes-Benz.

“It’s a great counterpoint to filmmaking,” Lange says, “because it’s a private, solitary experience. It’s like writing or painting; it’s something you can do on your own. Acting is a co-dependent art form, and the actor is not in control.”

Lange has shot everything from Mississippi doll collectors to summer carnivals, Minnesota motels and New Orleans restaurants. One benefit of moseying through rural towns is that most people don’t really recognize her as a celebrity. The actress, now 70, rose to stardom after appearing in the 1976 version of King Kong, followed by Tootsie in 1983, and Blue Sky in 1994—which won her two Oscars—then turned to photography after her then-husband Sam Shepard gave her a Leica from Germany in the 1990s. She shares the stories behind what she saw; from abandoned farms to boarded-up streets and restaurant cooks (and her road trip essentials).

"Minnesota, 2011-2018" © Jessica Lange, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

How did you select the photos for your book “Highway 61” with PowerHouse Books?
I wanted to represent the length of the highway, spaces I have spent more time and am more intimate with would be easier, there were more photographs of that—like Minnesota or New Orleans or the Delta, but the whole road is represented. I wanted to make sure that it was. I did the book edit and the sequencing, it goes geographically from north to south.

Do you have an affinity for these places having grown up in a small town?
I grew up in many small towns [laughs]. I guess I do have an affinity for them, it’s what I know, it’s what’s familiar. And the countryside. When I moved to New Orleans, that felt very exotic to me. In the countryside, it's what you see on the highway. Parts of it are really lonely and empty. A lot of little towns have disappeared, of course. Or at least, the vitality has diminished. That is part of what interested me, the idea of what has gone missing.

What has disappeared is a huge part of the show, is it community? In your opinion, what has disappeared?
I think all of rural America suffer this because whatever it was that kept these small towns going, whether it was a hub of an agricultural center or if it was a mill town, like the town I grew up in, or factories, over the last how many years, those things have disappeared. A lot of people have left, you see a lot of abandoned farms and barns falling down. There’s something very poignant and heartbreaking to me about that.

Small towns where main streets are all boarded up because Kmart or Walmart came in and built something on the edge of town, and there went main street America. But also, now we’re in a whole different kind of situation. A lot of those strip malls built for convenience for small towns have also gone bust. There is a loneliness to it, but I find America to be an incredibly lonely place. You see it every time you turn around. Maybe not so much in a big city, but it's deceptive because there is just so many people on the sidewalks or the streets, or whatever. But on the whole, if you drive along the roads of the countryside, there’s a certain sorrow to it.

"Mississippi, 2011-2018" © Jessica Lange, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

I think big cities can be just as lonely, they can be.
Mmm hmm.

There’s a lot of ghost towns in your photos, boarded up houses. What is it like being there?
There are. I have hundreds of those images of towns from northern Minnesota through the Delta, it really is happening everywhere. Whether you go north, south, east or west.

On the positive side, you make an effort to shoot portraits of people living in these places, from Arkansas to Mississippi and New Orleans—what have you learned from people and how they live in these places?
That’s been the best part of it, to tell you the truth. I love the solitary journey, too, driving in the car with no agenda. Stopping and getting out and walking, but for me, the best part is the human contact, meeting someone on the street in a small town in Arkansas. Talking to them for half the afternoon, getting to know their story. That, to me, was the best part of it. Because, when do we ever have an opportunity? Especially nowadays when everyone is so separate and separated.

Yeah, to actually sit and talk to somebody for awhile. Way outside your geographical, emotional understanding. I loved it. I really did. When I look at some of these people that I’ve spent a little bit of time with, I can’t say I spent a lot of time with them, but they are, to me, the most touching.

As an example, you photographed two women sitting at a restaurant table wearing aprons in Mississippi. They look like kitchen workers, was that after their shift?
It’s a restaurant I’ve gone to time and time again. Yes, they’re the cooks, the waitresses, they’re taking a break. Another thing I want to say about the people I’ve photographed, is the majority of the time, they’re extremely generous. Very generous in their attitude, their presence, their allowing me coming into—for that case—the kitchen with my camera. That’s the other thing you don’t find so much in the big city: I find that people are very generous and very forthcoming, for the most part. Not as suspicious as we are here, in the city. You know? Where you see someone lift a camera and you immediately are suspicious of something. To me, that was the very best part of the whole project, just stopping and talking to people, connecting. Even if it was just briefly.

What are your road trip essentials? Is it jazz on the radio, an apple in your purse?
It’s definitely classical music because it keeps me calm. I’m not a great driver. I like the idea of being all alone and anonymous. Moving through space. Especially when I’m photographing, I tend to get very distracted because I’m often looking out the window, in case there’s something I want to shoot. The classical music keeps me grounded. That’s it! Sometimes there might be someone in the car with me, usually no. I’m usually by myself or with my dog. That’s it. I’m sorry the project is over, to tell you the truth. It was a great exercise for me in just being really present. In the moment. You have to, because you’re looking. You’re trying to see what’s there. Just that exercise in itself was very useful for me. I’m always lost in a daydream. This forced me to be present and to look.

"Minnesota, 2011-2018" © Jessica Lange, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

What do you want to shoot next?
I don’t know. This was the only time I did it in a way where I wanted to create a project. Usually, my photography is much more random—I shoot what I want, when I want. This was actually something I prepared for, it was storytelling. I’d love to find something like that again. It was a way of working in a way I’ve never worked before. It's not with an end in sight. It’s not to complete a project. If I could think of something, I’d be very happy. So far, I have not.

My last question is how you love to be behind the camera, versus being in front of it, as an actor?
Oh [big sigh] it’s so nice. It’s great. Also, there’s that magical thing with the camera, that it’s between you and what’s out there. It’s this object, the photography itself is an emotional response. When you determine ‘I want to photograph that’ it’s connected to your emotional state, something that you see, even if it’s just the light, a person, a gesture, a landscape. The impulse to take that photo is always emotional. It’s wonderful because it’s very private, in film or theatre, whatever, even though work is private, it’s out there for everybody. It’s done in a community: the crew, director, other actors, other stuff constantly going on. But with photography, what’s wonderful about it, is that it’s absolutely private. Every decision, every response, it’s just completely you.