When Jessica Lange finally admitted that her driving was a bit unpredictable it came as a relief. I was afraid to bring it up from the passenger seat.
“My kids used to say, ‘Mom, pick a lane!’” the two-time Oscar winner said, chuckling.
But Lange exuded confidence and so I didn’t worry too much. She knew where she was going.
For her, a Minnesota native who summers in what she called a cabin an hour or so away, Highway 61 was more than a conveyance; it was a creative wellspring dating back to her childhood.
In fact, this was Lange’s third trip along this route over the summer, toward towns with names like Castle Danger and Beaver Bay, past dense stands of trees and signs for smoked fish and homemade pies. The road itself is the subject of her latest book of photographs, ‘Highway 61’, which comes out October 1.
Inside, the 84 black-and-white photographs document all manner of life along 61, which runs — first as a state road, then for most of its route as a US highway — from the Canadian border down to New Orleans, a city where she lived and owned a home for a time. She was born in the town of Cloquet, Minnesota, and the route was a central artery for her family, but the book also chronicles the changes she has witnessed — stretches of the road that she describes as “empty, forlorn, as if in mourning for what has gone missing.”
It’s not that Lange, 70, who starred in ‘Tootsie’, ‘Grey Gardens’ and dozens of other movies and TV shows, has given up acting. Her latest production from Ryan Murphy — who kept her busy through many seasons of ‘American Horror Story’, which earned her two of her three Emmys — is ‘The Politician’, which debuted on Netflix.
But photography is much more than a hobby for her, as I discovered over our four-hour road trip. Wherever we stopped, she paused to take photographs.
She started taking pictures seriously in the 1990s, when her partner at the time, playwright and actor Sam Shepard, came back from a trip to Germany with a Leica as a gift. She saw it as a way to take high-quality pictures of their two children, and her practice grew from there.
Lange, although now based in New York, has spent time over the last six years documenting all eight states where Highway 61 unfolds.
The photographs themselves are grainy, suffused with intense light and shadow, capturing small moments featuring people, road signs, horizons, carnivals, diners. The book’s cover has one of her most striking images, an African American child looking right at the camera with an intense gaze.
At first glance, ‘Highway 61’ may evoke the work of William Eggleston and Robert Frank, who died this month: They are two photographers Lange has known personally and admired. “Who hasn’t he influenced?” she said of Frank.
But her favourite practitioner is someone less famous, Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, noted for his work with the Magnum agency and high-contrast, black-and-white images, as in his seminal ‘Gypsies’ series.
Sarah Paulson, her co-star from ‘American Horror Story’ and a close friend, lives in Los Angeles with four of Lange’s images on the walls and is soon getting a fifth.
“When you’re seeing through Jessica’s lens, it’s immediate and feels visceral,” Paulson said. “It’s the same alchemy that makes her so extraordinarily powerful as an actress.”
At the University of Minnesota, photography accidentally ended up in her curriculum when she couldn’t get into a painting class.
She met a group of photographers through her professors there, including Daniel Seymour and Paco Grande. She married Grande in 1970, but not before ditching school to travel to Europe with them, including to Paris during the May 1968 protests.
Once she moved to New York, she found herself living in a loft on the Bowery with Robert Frank (Seymour’s collaborator in a 1972 documentary about the Rolling Stones on tour). She recalled Frank taking stills of her for a film she was working on at the time.
But she herself wasn’t taking photographs yet. That would have to wait until after her movie career took off, starting with ‘King Kong’ (1976).
As it turns out, one of the holdovers from her life in that era is the car we were driving in that day, originally owned by director Milos Forman, who died last year. The Mercedes was a gift from Mikhail Baryshnikov, Lange’s partner of six years (it ended in 1982) and the father of the first of her three children.
Baryshnikov gave her the Mercedes after obtaining it from Forman, who used it to flee the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Somehow, his government ID from the time remained in the glove compartment, in a pink case. I almost didn’t believe it until I had it in my hand. “He was so handsome,” she said.
The proximity of someone else’s fame brought up the topic of how someone as well known as Lange can be a street photographer, a genre that has relied on the camera-wielder being unobtrusive. But as I witnessed, not everyone recognises Lange, at least at first, and by the time they do, she may have already snapped the picture.
“What’s wonderful is the anonymity of it,” Lange told me of switching sides from the object of the camera’s gaze to the director of it. “Such a relief.”
In the age of Instagram, when “everyone is a photographer,” as she put it, it’s a treat for her to take control of the lens. It’s a break from fretting that someone is taking her picture in a supermarket: “I don’t have to worry about being absurd.”