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Coast to Coast

Thomas Hoepker’s dark and brooding portrait of 1960s America, inspired by Robert Frank’s 'The Americans'

Thomas Hoepker

Thomas Hoepker USA. Los Angeles. 1963 © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos

The dark americana of Thomas Hoepker’s Coast to Coast is the second in our summer series exploring American road trips made by Magnum photographers.

“Would you like to discover America?” asked the editor-in-chief. He pointed at me and at my friend, the writer Rolf Winter.

We sat in the conference room of Kristall, a bi-weekly picture magazine in Hamburg, Germany. “Sure”, we said, “but what exactly do you want us to do there?” “I think”, replied the editor, “You’ll fly to New York and then you rent a car and you drive westward until you meet the Pacific, and then you drive back on another route and you take pictures and write about what you see. No time limit”. We liked the brief briefing and nodded. The year was 1963 and I was 27.

Thomas Hoepker Billboard and passengers on bus. New York City, USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos

"Would you like to discover America?"

-
Thomas Hoepker Football practice in evening light. Butte, Montana, USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos

I did indeed love America, ever since two American Sherman tanks had rattled into our small Bavarian village in May 1945, ending the war for us. Two soldiers, one black, one white, in full battle gear jumped out and handed Hershey Bars and Spearmint gums to us children. Later, in high school in Stuttgart, I met Jimmy. He said he was a Private First Class, which sounded quite impressive to me. First Class Jimmy hailed from South Carolina and he organized a German/American youth group. Together we listened to jazz from the AFN radio station.

Jimmy taught us basic English; he also had plenty of Wrigley’s sticks of gum for us. And Jimmy had a magic contraption, a gizmo made of plastic, resembling binoculars. There was a slot into which you could insert a disk with small cut-outs and when you looked through the lenses, with both eyes, you would see colorful photos in magical 3-D. Through this I was introduced to the wonders of America, like the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Grand Canyon. My favourite however was a picture of a bunch of girls in teeny bikinis, gliding over water on skis and holding American flags.

"I did indeed love America"

- Thomas Hoepker
Thomas Hoepker Highway with advertising signs. Reno, Nevada, USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos
Thomas Hoepker Austin. Texas, USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos
Thomas Hoepker Downtown street scene. San Francisco, USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos
Thomas Hoepker A turkey billboard at a used tire dealership. Houston, Texas. USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos

"But now, in the fall of ’63 – yuppie yeah youppi ooo – we drove our Oldsmobile Cutlass to the West. "

- Thomas Hoepker
Thomas Hoepker An old lady rides on a float with the American flag during a Fourth of July parade in downtown. San Francisco, California. USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos
Thomas Hoepker Woman crossing the street holding a gun. Texas, USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos

But now, in the fall of ’63 – yuppie yeah youppi ooo – we drove our Oldsmobile Cutlass to the West. I had two Leicas, a laundry bag full of Tri-X film and a lot of time. Rolf had his writing pad and his pipe. We ate burgers, ribs and coleslaw, drank Dr. Pepper and Budweiser and stayed at whichever motel showed up at day’s end.

Thomas Hoepker Honest Joe's Pawn Broker's shop. Dallas, Texas. USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos
Thomas Hoepker Woman in a diner with jukebox at her side. USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos

"We found an America which had little to do with my childhood dreams."

- Thomas Hoepker
Thomas Hoepker A clown at a lunch counter in a diner. Reno, Nevada, USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos

We found an America which had little to do with my childhood dreams. Sure, there were grandiose landscapes but also many days of nothingness. Any new little town looked pretty much like all the others we had seen. Gas stations, drug stores, car dealerships, roadside diners, churches – so many churches! Also, for our taste, far too many flags. Yes, people were nice, friendly, spontaneous, more so than in our part of the world. But why were they so ignorant about other countries? Why so intolerant about other people, especially if they had dark skin?

Thomas Hoepker Dancers in a bar. Tucson, Arizona, USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos

"We ate burgers, ribs and coleslaw, drank Dr. Pepper and Budweiser and stayed at whichever motel showed up at day’s end."

- Thomas Hoepker
Thomas Hoepker Two men and a dog in front of a small town storefront along the highway. Iowa. USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos
Thomas Hoepker A beggar with amputated legs performs a headstand in front of a movie house. Quincy, Illinois, USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos

For my work, I had a guiding star: Robert Frank’s book Les Americains, first published in 1958, by Robert Delpire in Paris, because, at that time, no publisher in America would touch Frank’s dark and brooding pictures. I had seen the first edition in a bookstore in Hamburg, shortly before my American trip, and I was deeply moved and inspired by it. Inspired to such an extent that I got quite excited when we drove out West in ’63 and I saw on my map that we were near the town of Butte, Montana. Frank’s pictures from Butte had stuck in my mind and I just had to go there… quite foolishly. But worthwhile nevertheless. Butte was also good to me and gave me some decent images. Robert – I’m standing on your shoulder, but I can’t even reach up to your belt!

Thomas Hoepker, New York, January 2013. Taken from Heartland, An American Road Trip in 1963. For more from the American Road Trips series, see Inge Morath’s Road to Reno.

Thomas Hoepker A John F. Kennedy plaque in a souvenir store. Reno, Nevada. USA. 1963. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos