Diesels and Dinosaurs
Long Run Press, Berkeley, 1976
Available on Photo-Eye
From American Photography: A Critical History 1945 to the Present by Jonathan Green:
"In Steve Fitch’s Diesels and Dinosaurs (1976), the mythic presence of the Old West is discovered in today’s popular roadside culture. Fitch photographs the diesel trucks, roadside amusements, motels, and hand-drawn signs of the American highway. His work mirrors that paradoxical American duality: a fascination with the efficient machine and a reverence for wildness. His work equates a technological wonder--the diesel truck--with the awe- evoking dinosaurs of the past. The huge eighteen-wheelers that roam the highway are seen not as spoilers of the virgin land but as direct emanations of American independence. Advanced technology has not destroyed the land but returned it to its basic source of power.
For Fitch the American West is dense with the presence of a more primitive experience: Indians, wigwams, snake charmers, savage beasts, dinosaurs, cowboys, and the landscape. Yet none are authentic. The wigwam is plaster and paint, the landscape is painted on drive-in screens and motel sides, the live rattlesnake pales in comparison to the twelve-foot-high snakepit sculpture on Highway 66. For Fitch emblem is more significant than fact. In this highway culture, fact is always overwhelmed by fable. Here the past enters the present not as reality but as a graven image. Actual snakes, bears, and Indians have been banished from the land and have been replaced by images packaged for tourist consumption or by cartoon characters selling products on roadside signs.
In Diesels and Dinosaurs the essential device that reconciles past and present is light. By photographing at dusk and after dusk, Fitch makes even the most banal signs seem monumental and radiant. Trucks, motels, and plaster dinosaurs become luminescent. Darkness neutralizes the conflict between man and nature, covers up the essential differences between past and present, and clothes advanced technology and popular culture in the mysteries of blackness. Night and bright roadside lights reconcile the irreconcilable: primitive power and urban expansion. The cartoon figures, the roadside architecture, and diesel truck, all intensified by the mystery of the night, emanate a primitive energy."
From The Highway as Habitat by Ulrich Keller:
"Stubbornly executed in black and white, Steve Fitch’s Diesels and Dinosaurs is notably free of such chromatically spruced-up botany. Like so many others of his generation, Fitch nostalgically looks back on old-style highway culture as a treasure, amassed in childhood on the back seat of daddy’s voluminous ’51 Buick, and now irrevocably lost under the onslaught of superhighway construction. Unlike most of his generation, however, Fitch also captured (and has since tried to recapture photographically) a glimpse of transcendency through the car window, thus furnishing a belated rebuttal of Boorstin and Blake.
'Certain objects would acquire a symbolic—even ritualistic—stature in my . . . still unfashioned psyche. The Buick itself became an icon of sorts: to me it was a landed fish, a large benevolent animal. . . . Sitting in it was like riding in the belly of a whale. . . . Everything was bent and mysterious. One time, driving down the shiny- wet street of a small town at dusk with an army of neon reflections bouncing off the slick pavement, I felt akin to an explorer on another planet who has abruptly come upon a canyon as gigantic and majestic as the Grand Canyon—only a canyon made of neon light!'
This reminiscence is embedded in a historical perspective worth explaining. With Fitch in the Buick is his grandmother. Part of a generation who grew up with old-fashioned concepts of transcendence, she sees God’s hand in a thunderstorm and feels it is time to leave the car when lightning approaches. But Fitch’s father at the steering wheel is a man of the automobile age who has lost such superstitions; since he is not an intellectual he does not mourn the loss of either. 'This car is the safest place to be,' he claims. 'If some lighting hits us the tires will insulate us from the ground.' The lines are clearly drawn. 'Ralph, if God
wants to kill us, He will!' 'Yes, but a car is still the safest place to be.'
Fitch, the child of the third generation, reconciles these extremes by endowing the car
with a hybrid, inbuilt transcendence. 'The question of which was stronger, my grandmother’s
God or my father’s Buick, was irrelevant. . . . The highway was like a dream and a diesel is a