Folio — From the July 2015 issue

Travel Day

Photographs of airports by twenty photographers, with an essay by Geoff Dyer

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When I was eight years old, in 1966, during a holiday with my parents, I traveled to Heathrow Airport for the first time. The reason I put it so clumsily is that we weren’t flying anywhere. We were spending a week in London, and one morning we went out to see the airport and the planes coming and going. It was just like visiting the Tower of London or Buckingham Palace, as we had on other days. Instead of being a point of departure, the airport was a destination and attraction in its own right. I had to wait fifteen years, until I was twenty-three, before I flew on a plane. My parents both died in 2011 without ever taking a flight.

In the Sixties and Seventies, air travel was perhaps no longer the exclusive preserve of a tiny elite, but the glamour of the “jet set” — whoever they were — was near its peak. The threat of terror was not so pervasive that an ill-judged joke could put an entire terminal on lockdown. The contrast with today is brought out powerfully in a scene from 1975 in Terry Castle’s memoir The Professor. Castle describes an unorthodox interview for a fellowship that takes place at Sea-Tac airport and ends with her and her interviewer sneaking around a corner to get wildly stoned. Consider also the climax of Bullitt, in which Steve McQueen pursues his suspect onto — and off — a plane at SFO. At one point, McQueen asks someone to get hold of “the security guard.” Singular. It’s fiction, granted, but the ease with which the chase moves airside and back is a not implausible reflection of the lax realities of the day.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport, N.C., by Gus Powell

Charlotte Douglas International Airport, N.C., by Gus Powell

The most important documentary record of American airports in the transitional phase between exclusivity and the present era of comfortless democratization is by Garry Winogrand. Actually, we could substitute almost any word for “airports” in the preceding sentence — “suburbs,” “cars,” “shops,” “clothes” — and it would still hold true. Through his insatiable eagerness to photograph, Winogrand became a one-man archive of the social landscape of the Sixties and Seventies. (The airport work was posthumously published in 2004 as Arrivals and Departures.)

The earliest U.S. airports were designed to look conservative and old-fashioned in order to reassure nervous fliers. By the Sixties, however, they gleamed with the sleek confidence of modernity. They became as emblematic of their age as railway stations were of nineteenth-century Britain. The long walkways beckoned like the promise of the space age itself.

But the situation is, as always in Winogrand, more complicated than that. Those same walkways, like the one at LAX that Lee Marvin walks down with such purposeful menace in Point Blank, often had an atmosphere of shared alienation. One image in particular seems akin to Paul Strand’s famous 1915 photograph of people hurrying to work on Wall Street. Strand described the windows lining the street as “a great maw into which the people rush.” His people are heading left, out of frame; Winogrand’s are striding toward us. In a few years they will become us — and vice versa. Together we will be condemned to an endless web of connecting flights, doomed to wander DFW or some other place we never wanted to visit, simply because it’s a transit hub. Departing passengers will be funneled into a plane and emerge hours later in a place that is both entirely different from and pretty much the same as the one they have left.

This is the now-familiar environment and experience described by Marc Augé in his book Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Appropriately enough, a Winogrand picture was used on the cover of the first English-language edition: a vast aircraft whose face — with the cockpit windows as eyes — is pressed up against a departure lounge, like a giant version of the animals he photographed in zoos.

The lure of the future proved problematic in another way too: it accelerated the speed at which airports would start to look old. Some of the terminals at JFK now look as worn out as a pickup stacked on cinder blocks. At various times different airports held the lead as the largest, busiest, most efficient or technologically advanced, but no sooner was a new paradigm of airportness established at a particular site than it became overcrowded, inefficient, and old-looking. Winogrand’s style — he said that he liked to work “in that area where content almost overwhelms form” — was perfectly adapted to exploit this tension.

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