May the Road Rise to Meet You

Photographs by Sara Macel
Daylight Books, 2013

Reviewed by Leo Hsu

Issue 59

One of the reasons I became a photographer is because if you have a photograph of something, you can’t forget or deny it. Every photograph says: “This existed”. And now, at long last, after thirty years of this image existing only in my brain: here he sits on a hotel bed with a glass of whiskey in his hand, looking out the hotel window and thinking only of home as the shutter goes click. - Sara Macel, May the Road Rise to Meet You

How are our lives organized by our work, partitioned in time and space? How do we imagine our loved ones when they are absent, even as they provide for us? If the absence is a duty, we hope that there is some pleasure or satisfaction in it, both for the worker who is absent and for those left behind. Sara Macel has, with the assistance of her father Dennis, sought to visualize what, for most of her life she could not see and did not know: her father's 44 year career on the road as a telephone pole sales manager in the treated wood industry. May the Road Rise to Meet You describes his work as he approaches retirement; it is at once an investigation and the expression of a wish, showing both what she found and what she hoped to find.

The quiet, steady photographs in May the Road Rise to Meet You describe a life on the road that is alone but not lonely. The picture on the cover, “In the company car”, made by Sara’s mother Katherine, is dated 1981, and shows him leaving for work. The rest of the images were made more recently by Sara and they begin with a long run of images introducing her relationship to Dennis’s life on the road: Dennis’s notes to himself, maps and receipts, ordering his day; a keynote picture of Sara and her camera casting a shadow on Dennis’s boot and luggage, inviting us to imagine the miles that he has travelled; a second keynote, a giant statue of a man seen through the trees - it’s Sam Houston, but here it stands for Dennis Macel, looming over Sara as he walks away. It’s a while before we get a good look at Dennis himself in the present day, and by then it’s a much older version of the man we met on the cover of the book, sitting alone in a hotel room, alone, calm.

Among the images are pictures that she made with him on his travels, as well as pictures that she made without him, while retracing his steps. There are airports and hotels that are clean and vacant, and like most of the environments through which he moves, they are serviceable, neither warm nor alienating. Convincing physical facsimiles of Macel’s notes to himself, written on hotel stationery, are stitched into the book. The series closes with a picture of Dennis sitting in a hotel room with a Holiday Inn tumbler that, we learn, Sara had purchased on eBay to give to him. The work that needed to be done has been completed. The book is simple and unassuming, the pictures confident and evocative, and the narrative streamlined and clear.

The clarity of the book belies a complicated relationship between the images and both Macels’s subjectivities. As Marvin Heiferman notes in the book’s introductory essay, May the Road Rise to Meet You is a collaborative, performative project. It appears at first glance to be in an observational documentary mode, and then is revealed to be a cooperative performative construction.

But beyond both of those modes, it is a work of projected imagination: the presentation of the pictures, the textual support, and the facsimiles all combine in the service of a persuasive wish-poem. Macel has created the world that she wished to believe in order to photograph it. This is not the story of Dennis Macel’s life on the road as he lived it; despite Dennis’s participation, it’s the story of his life as Sara reconstructs it, in response to her own absence from it. Understood as such, May the Road Rise to Meet You is beautiful, and as an intervention into comprehending the distances that work creates within families, achingly so.

May the Road Rise to Meet You was featured in Issue 39.