On the road again, with dad
A traveling telephone-pole salesman and his photographer daughter share a beautiful trip
Photographer Sara Macel's new book, May the Road Rise to Meet You (Daylight Books), is part documentary, part fictionalized account of life on the road with her father, Dennis Macel, a traveling telephone-pole salesman.
As a telephone-pole salesman, Dennis meets with private contractors who work with cities all over the South and Midwest, and negotiates deals so they buy his telephone poles. There are still opportunities for new telephone poles to be installed (imagine a new housing development that goes up), though much of the work is in replacing poles damaged by weather or old age.
Macel, 32, felt an early, if subconscious, connection to her father's increasingly outdated profession, along with travel photography. On weekends, while on vacation, and during her time in graduate school, she would take road trips, photographing events and people she came across. In talking to her father, who would traverse the country, she realized they were often going to the same places.
Several years ago, dad was laid off from the company he had worked at for 30 years. While he was eventually picked up by one of his competitors, Macel says her dad went through a real soul-searching moment that in a small way mirrored what she was feeling in her own career.
"He was realizing his job was becoming obsolete as a traveling salesman and I was feeling the same way as someone still using film while so many had moved onto digital."
After several phone conversations with her dad about his travels and profession, Macel finally got up the courage to ask him, "How do you feel about me doing a photo project of your life on the road?"
The result is a daughter's portrait of her father and a detailed account of a profession that is being eclipsed by new technologies.
"The big overall idea was that you're seeing him at the start of his career and through the sequence it takes you on one business trip that is meant to represent a whole career that ends with him as an older man, still not home yet," she said. "It's a loop, a never-ending trip."
The photos in the first section, which have a warm, vintage tone, are meant to represent memories of a father always on the go as well as a daughter's attempt get closer to him.
"It's such a subjective look at his life. And it's definitely a daughter trying to get to know her dad and having a hard time getting through. In the beginning you only see a hand or a foot or people who might not even be him but act as place holders for him."
Macel wanted to represent what it was like on the road — capturing those long, lonely stretches of quiet — but also capture the picture of her father, The Salesman, that she had in her head. "It's as much fictional as it was true."
The project explores the inherently dubious nature of photography. It's an old idea based on a quote by famed 18th-century photographer Edward Steichen: "Every photograph is a lie from start to finish." Because they are taken from one person's point of view, photos are subjective, and you're never seeing the entire picture.
In following with this theme, Macel would set up shots, sometimes guiding her dad or letting him interact naturally in that fabricated environment. The final images were based on his life, but not necessarily factually accurate. Her dad, for example, was always an early riser, so to capture that, Macel had him have breakfast one morning at this old, chrome diner in her hometown of Spring, Texas. "It's more about of us making this narrative where we really take a lot of liberties," she said.
As the book progresses, Dennis comes into the frame more — he's meeting with clients, examining a roll of papers on the back of his car. The color palette cools as well and the photos begin to feel more in the moment. The ultimate shot, however, is the last in the sequence, the "monumental portrait" of Dennis. Macel painstakingly created the whole thing.
"Basically it was just like the image of him that I'd always had in my head. I pictured him on the hotel bed with a glass of whiskey staring out the widow all lonely and missing us," she said. "It seemed like such an important image to create because it would validate that image in my head."
To complete the photo, which was taken at a hotel in her parent's town, Macel found a vintage Holiday Inn tumbler on eBay and, because her dad doesn't drink scotch anymore, filled it with iced tea from the vending machine.
Macel admits she romanticized the life of a traveling salesman, and that's a big force behind the series. "But," she says, "there's really not a lot of romance to being on the road. My dad is such an old fashioned guy. Traveling for him is entirely about providing for his family, suffering through all these plane trips, and the weariness of travel, for us."
For more information on the book or Sara Macel, check out her website.
Click here to pre-order May the Road Rise to Meet You.
And for New Yorkers, Sara Macel will be part of a panel discussion called "Family Matters — photography in close relation" a part of Photoville, this Saturday, in Brooklyn. Click here for more details.