BOOK REVIEW: The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside by Ryann Ford (PowerHouse)

This new collection of work by Texas-based photographer Ryann Ford presents echoes of a not-too-distantly bygone age where motorists traversed the highways of America on journeys of discovery where the possibilities seemed endless.

These routes on the then newly-established interstate network were punctuated by the rest stop, areas characterised by spartan amenities for toileting and eating, the history of which is outlined in the book by Joanna Dowling.

Fifty years on, these rest stops seem like an allegory of a simpler, more optimistic time. Of a nation of Don Drapers striding purposefully into a future where everyone would get whatever they desired. Ford herself explains how she came to this project, her interest piqued by their sometimes picturesque settings as well as the news that they were being steadily demolished. She set off on a journey of her own to document these little roadside havens, in the process preserving both their physical form and their wider significance.

Ford presents more than 80 carefully-crafted images with a very consistent compositional style. The rest stop is almost invariably centre of the frame, in defiance of the often majestic scenery that surrounds it. There’s a noticeable absence of man, beast or vehicle (only a single image containing any signs of life at all) and the austerity of these stops stands in stark contrast to the extravaganzas of the modern day service station. The compositional choices give a primacy to the rest stop that belies their sometimes dilapidated or self-conscious appearance and allows them to transcend to a level of greater significance. Although these photographs were taken at locations across many states there’s a certain congruity that harks back to the advisory publications of the early 60s which outlined what these stops should look like. There’s a stubborn intransigence about these emblems of an elapsed time, refusing to quietly accept they are no longer required, like a cassette in the iTunes age. The sense of isolation in these beautiful images perfectly captures the mood of something lost, with only vestigial remnants pointing towards a rapidly fading vision of a future that never materialised. So we’re just left with balding grassy patches, quirky and sometimes striking architectural features, cacti, red rocks and porta-loos, all telling the same story: of a yearning for what is gone and a reverence for the American spirit of adventure and potential that links this work with that of other great photographic ‘road-trippers’ such as Shore and Soth.

The fact we are seeing these photographs at all owes much to the resourcefulness and tenacity that artists often need to bring their work to a wider audience, publication achieved by Ford in this case via Kickstarter funding. In a testament to what can be achieved when publishing in a non-traditional manner, the images are beautifully-presented and Ford’s work is greatly complemented by the writing of Dowling and the poetic musings of Joe Ely to produce a coherent whole that is even more than the sum of its thoughtfully captured parts. As such, it’s very easy to recommend.


Hardcover: 150 pages
Publisher: Powerhouse Books; 01 edition (12 May 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1576877914
ISBN-13: 978-1576877913

The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside is published by PowerHouse Books and is available to buy here.

All photographs above by Ryann Ford, from The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside, published by powerHouse Books.


The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside was reviewed for Shutter Hub by Justin Carey