In 1963, as a young photojournalist for the German magazine Kristall, Thomas Hoepker travelled throughout the USA for three months. In 2020, nearly sixty years later, after a long and successful career as a photographer, he set out to follow the same route, once more. Pictures from both series now appear in a new book titled The Way it was. Road Trips USA; and will be now on display as part of an exhibition at the Ernst Leitz Museum in Wetzlar.
The USA has been a second home for the renowned Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker, for many years now; and, bar a few interludes, is where he has spent the most amount of time in his long life. He currently lives on Long Island, in the state of New York. As a young photographer with a number of successes under his belt, Hoepker was just 24 the first time he travelled to the States. He spent most of his time in Manhattan, impressed by the city’s skyline, and its vitality and modernity. Three years later, he was back in the USA, but under changed circumstances: he now had fixed employment at Kristall – a bi-weekly magazine, published by Springer Publishing in Hamburg – whose editor-in-chief made him an irresistible offer to do a comprehensive documentary piece about the country.
The succinct opening question posed to Hoepker and his author colleague Rolf Winter was, quite simply: “Would you like to discover America?” Years later, Hoepker still remembers the moment: “‘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 short briefing and nodded. The year was 1963, and I was 27.”
Both Hoepker and Winter were not particularly euphoric about the USA, but they did want to learn more about the country and its people. Three months sounded like a good amount of time to do so, and the travel budget was also very attractive. Driving an Oldsmobile Cutlass, put at their disposal by General Motors, they set out in the autumn of 1963. They started from the East Coast, and headed to Washington, D.C., Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Los Angeles and San Francisco; from there, they returned to Boston, via Reno, Salt Lake City, Birmingham and Detroit. They covered a total of close to 27,000 kilometres. Equipped with two fast-winding Leica MPs and a variety of lenses with 35, 50, 90 and 135mm focal lengths, as well as sacks of Kodak Tri-X film, the photographer had around 4,000 negatives by the end of the journey. The magazine printed a total of 65 pages in five issues, in which the two journalists’ ambivalent attitude was evident: enthusiasm and curiosity; but also, scepticism and a critical distance determined their view of the enormous country. At a time when transatlantic travel was beyond the means of most Europeans, the USA was perceived as a country of possibility and freedom, with its skyscrapers and highways. Hoepker’s images also revealed the problems: poverty, homelessness, racism, daily violence and right-wing extremism. The photojournalists were struck, above all, by the indifference of a great number of Americans towards the splits in society that could be seen everywhere: poor and rich, but also black and white. They heard about the fatal shooting of John F. Kennedy in November, 1963, when they were in Las Vegas, where the news hardly seemed to disturb anyone. “When JFK was murdered, we had just arrived,” Hoepker remembers. “I was appalled that the people at the gaming tables simply continued playing.” A large selection from the reportage appeared, decades later, in a number of photo books, including Heartland in 2013. The seismographic and complex manner in which Hoepker captured the mood of the country, in strong individual motifs, is all the more evident in retrospective. Many of the images have lost none of their impact and have long since acquired iconic significance.
The legendary journey of 1963 came full circle two years ago, when the 84-year-old photographer repeated the same extensive road trip, together with his current wife Christine Kruchen. This time, they were travelling in a camper van, accompanied by a film crew. The camera technology also fit modern times: the photographs were taken in colour with a Leica SL2. Since they journeyed in a season of political campaigning, they again encountered a divided land. Even so, Hoepker’s pictures are different this time: they show less of the harsh realities of life, and more of the expanse of the country. The new motifs are often devoid of any people, and focus on a feeling of loss, in the midst of the endless landscapes. They represent a much more personal exploration of the country he has come to love – despite its contradictions and challenges. The images also reveal an experienced photographer and sensitive chronicler. Both series have recently been published in a photo book. Seeing the two series together, opens up a fascinating glimpse of the country over time, as well as revealing the photographer’s evolution, and the melancholy of old age. Some of Hoepker’s own memories have now been lost, but the pictures remain. They stand as a testimony to the man himself; because, as he once admitted, “Every photo you take is to some degree a self-portrait. I am convinced that you can’t make any picture, if you don’t already carry that picture within yourself.”
Steidl Publishers have just published the new photo book: The Way it was. Road Trips USA brings the pictures from 1963 and 2020 into an exciting correlation. The documentary film, “Dear Memories – Eine Reise mit dem Magnum-Fotografen Thomas Hoepker“ (Dear Memories – a Journey with Magnum Photographer Thomas Hoepker) is also nearly completed and will be seen shortly in cinemas.
The exhibition, THOMAS HOEPKER – IMAGE MAKER, Seven decades of indelible pictures will run from April 1 to July 17, 2022 at the Ernst Leitz Museum in Wetzlar.
Thomas Hoepker was born in Munich on June 10, 1936. His first photographs were taken with a Zeca 9×12 plate camera. From 1956 to 1959, he studied History of Art and Archaeology in Göttingen and Munich. In 1960, he became a photo reporter for the Münchner Illustrierte; in 1962, for the magazine Kristall; and, starting in 1964, for Stern. From 1978 to 1981, he was Executive Editor of the American issue of Geo, in New York; and from 1986 to 1989, he served as Art Director in Stern’s chief editorial team in Hamburg. He has been a member of Magnum Photo Agency, since 1989; and held the positions of Vice President from 1992 to 1995, and President from 2003 to 2007. He has produced numerous photo books and exhibitions. His many awards and honours include: the Kulturpreis of the German Photographic Society (DGPh) in 1968; the German Federal Cross of Merit in 1977; and his induction into the Leica Hall of Fame in 2014. Find out more about his work on magnumphotos.com.