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Photographer Larry Niehues was born and raised in a city in southern France called Avignon. After moving to the United States in 2010 to pursue a career in commercial photography, he was instantly captivated by the wide-open landscapes of the American West and the charming small towns that appeared frozen in a bygone era.
For Niehues, these were places he had dreamed of as a boy and had heard about in the music and stories his parents shared with him. To capture this feeling, he set out on a fantastic journey to visit all 50 states and document the people and places along the way. A new book titled Nothing Has Changed: Portraits of the US brings together his pictures from the road in a stunning and eclectic portrait of American culture today. In these photographs, strangers become new friends, and every pit stop at a diner, roadhouse, or gas station becomes a reminder of America's inherent beauty.
Here, Niehues shares his love for the American road and how he went about tackling the enormous challenge of visiting all 50 states.
When did the idea come to you to do a book about America?
Larry Niehues: It was around 2011 that I decided I wanted to visit every state in America and document the everyday life of ordinary people. When you look at the news, it seems to me like you don’t see the old America that people once dreamed of — so I wanted to show people that there’s still magic here. If you go on the road and visit the small towns, then you will find America. You just have to look for it.
It’s easy for someone to mistake your pictures as being from another time, such as the ’60s or ’70s — was that intentional?
LN: I think that’s my personality coming through behind the camera. I grew up in the south of France with parents who were fascinated by American culture. Growing up, my brother and I were always surrounded by old, classic American music. I’ve always been fascinated by the past, which was why it was very important to me to produce this book to show that the classic America is still out there.
This project was made during a politically divisive time for the country. Is that something you took note of in your work?
LN: When I first started the project, America wasn’t as it is today. Barack Obama was still the president back then, and I felt as if there were good things coming to America. I was really looking forward to putting out this book as America was changing for the better. But the project took longer than expected, and unfortunately America also changed during that period in a way I hadn’t expected.
I definitely saw the changes while I was on the road, but I didn’t want to be politically involved. I decided it was important for me to focus on the beauty of this country. For me, it’s always been about America the beautiful.
Your book mentions the work of legendary 20th-century photographer Robert Frank. How has Frank’s work inspired or informed yours?
LN: Robert Frank's quintessential book The Americans is one of my biggest references as a street photographer. And as a European, just as Robert Frank was, neither of us grew up here. When I first got here, my eye was immediately attracted to all the differences, the landscapes, and the people, and I think it was the same for Robert Frank.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Robert Frank, along with William Eggleston, Dennis Hopper, and Stephen Shore. These are artists who hit the road and documented everything. So I didn’t do anything new here, but I did take their approach to street photography and applied it to newer days. I also did the whole project on 35 mm film to pay tribute and my respect to those guys, which was exciting, but also stressful because you never know if your picture came out. I had to wait two weeks before ever looking at the pictures.
What do you hope people will take away from these pictures?
LN: It’s my hope that these pictures inspire people to hit the road and explore like I did. If you’re driving by an old bar in a small town, don’t think too much. Just stop by and take a photo. I like it when people say that my work inspired them to take the time to look closer at the world around them.
Today, it’s very easy to be distracted by technology and cellphones — I think it’s safe to say that people do not pay attention to their surroundings like they did in the past. I’d like to see people maybe take a break from social networks, to slow down and reconnect with the beauty that’s there.
One last thing I’d like to highlight is something that Dan Auerbach, singer of the Black Keys, wrote in the foreword to my book. He said, “I’m proud to say I’m from the USA,” which I think is a beautiful statement. I want people to feel comfortable saying that, because America is truly a beautiful country and I feel blessed to be walking in these states as a foreigner. This book is my love letter to America.