Photographers who still prefer to work in black and white have their reasons in terms of subject matter and aesthetic values. In the case of the history-minded Clarence Carvell, shooting in black and white seems really appropriate for “The National Road ... a Photographic Journey,” an exhibit at the Bernice Kish Gallery at Slayton House.
For a 13-year project that began in 1992, Carvell set out to document the National Road, which was the first major highway built in the United States, beginning in 1811, and helped American settlers head out West.
As Carvell notes in an accompanying artist statement: “It still remains the first national road and as such was the first road to have any strategic play in westward development.”
Mostly shooting in the corridor from Baltimore to Cumberland, Carvell shows how the remnants of the original National Road are often within yards of routes 40, 68 and 70. Commenting on the role played by driver preference in journeying through Western Maryland, he writes: “The hurried traveler takes the interstates, the leisurely traveler takes the 40s, the curious traveler takes the National Road. Not surprising. They all start at about the same place and they all wind up at about the same place.”
Although there are images of all three roads, the sentimental favorite seen most often is the original National Road. The economic aspect of constructing and paying for this old road is brought home with architecturally beautiful force in the photo “LaValle Toll House, LaValle, MD.”
The surviving bits of the National Road tend to be pathway-like stretches of roadway that often seem to appear and then disappear within the surrounding landscape. What generally survives are patches of the old road — things like the toll house and stone arch bridges.
One of the most effective of the numerous bridge photos in the show is “Casselman Bridge in Fog, Grantsville, MD.” The foggy atmosphere makes it seem as if this venerable bridge is being glimpsed through the mists of time. Likewise, “Conococheague River Bridge” is set within a misty environment.
A bridge that many viewers will recognize is “Burnside Bridge, Sharpsburg, MD.” The Civil War battle of Antietam took place in this area, and such bridges are among the architectural sites that still appear now much as they did in the 1860s.
The Kish Gallery exhibit is effective in lining up its photos of various bridges. Indeed, there is one photo that in itself offers a compact transportation history lesson. For “Three Bridges, Castleman River, Grantsville, MD,” Carvell has applied text labels to let us know that the concrete bridge is for Route 68, the steel bridge is for Route 40, and the stone bridge is for the original National Road.
Working his way westward, Carville took photos including “Suspension Bridge, Ohio River, Wheeling, WV.” Depicting a barge that is just about to pass under a more modern bridge, Carvell reminds us of the rivers and roads that continue to be of major economic importance in this region.
Another important thematic consideration in this photographic series is that the National Road encouraged the development of towns along its path. Close to home, of course, the historic district in Ellicott City is a largely intact example of the economic benefits of having an important road pass through your town.
In “Side Street Cafe, Tiber Alley, Ellicott City, MD,” several tightly spaced buildings give a sense of how development tends to cluster immediately adjacent to a main street that once served as a major roadway. A related photo, “Side Street, Tiber River, Ellicott City, MD,” is a close-up shot depicting two windows set within a stone wall. The latter photo is an especially nice example of how black and white is ideally suited to convey the dark integrity of stonework.
In the Ellicott City scenes and, for that matter, most of the photos throughout the exhibit, Carvell generally presents exterior views of the built environment. However, in “E.C. Does It Cafe, Ellicott City, MD (Before the Fire),” he features an old-fashioned interior complete with a pressed tin ceiling. As the photographer has observed, fire and flood and urban development have since claimed some of the things he documented in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Although Ellicott City has remained economically vibrant despite such threats to its history, other old towns along the National Road have not fared as well. One reaches this conclusion by looking at the photo “Market Street, National Road (Brownsville, PA).” It’s a distressed commercial street with very little vehicular or pedestrian traffic, and some of the commercial storefronts seem to be vacant. This single image amounts to a pictorial treatise on what happens when an original main street is supplanted by newer roads that serve as magnets for travelers and commercial development.
Although there is a certain sadness in seeing pictures of once-vibrant towns, Carvell also finds humor along the way. A great example of what might be termed roadside Americana is the photo “Route 40 Motel — Franklin County, Ohio.” The motel sign provides a blatant lesson in how to attract weary drivers, namely, the numeral “40” and a directional arrow are placed on the sign so bluntly that no driver could miss them. Equally attention-grabbing is the joke on an accompanying board: “A dog saw a sign that said ‘Wet Paint.’ So he did.”
Even if drivers keep going, they also keep smiling.
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Clarence Carvell’s “The National Road ... A Photographic Journey” runs through March 14 at the Bernice Kish Gallery at Slayton House, 10400 Cross Fox Lane in Wilde Lake Village Center in Columbia. Call 410-730-3987.