A Busman’s Holiday – Wouter Cool’s Journey through the United States
Ever since Robert Frank published his seminal work The Americans in 1958, the American Road Trip has become a staple of mainstream photography. It can take many forms: a way to capture imposing landscapes, a journey of self-discovery, a critical inventory of how the American dream has gone sour. But in the 1930s the concept was not yet firmly established, nor have many American Road Trips focused on a very practical subject matter ever since. The photographic legacy of Wouter Cool (b. 1877 – d. 1947), found in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, forms therefore an interesting anomaly.
As a map included in the collection attests, Cool travelled extensively through the United States and Canada in 1936. Even though some of his photographs show beautiful vistas, and others look like typical tourist images, his overriding interest lies with feats of engineering. We find ourselves looking at sweeping sights of the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in the Columbia River and the Boulder Dam in Arizona/Nevada. We see the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco still under construction as well as a nearly finished Oakland Bridge. We scrutinise close-ups of pipe lines, electrical transformers, turbines and locomotives. Even a picture of the Niagara Falls, without a doubt one of the most picturesque sites in the U.S., is dominated by the road and rail tracks in the foreground.
These pictures were not taken to formally capture the surreal beauty of industry and technology as is the case for the Bauhaus photographers.
Cool was not a photographer by profession, but a trained civil engineer who worked as a technical journalist later in his life. He started his career working for the Gemeentewerken Rotterdam. From 1898 until 1914 Cool was closely involved with the expansion of the Rotterdam harbour, the extension of the railway system, the growth of the city, and the construction of public and administrative buildings. From 1914 until 1931 Cool worked for both the Dutch government as well as transport companies in the Dutch East Indies, taking responsibility for large engineering projects. In 1932 he became general secretary of the Royal Institute of Engineers as well as editor-in-chief for the weekly magazine De Ingenieur [The Engineer]. Until his death in 1947, Cool would publish many articles, reportages and travel notes on the developments taking place in engineering both in the Netherlands as well as abroad. Even before taking up the mantle as chief editor of De Ingenieur, Cool wrote extensively about engineering. It appears that he also took many pictures alongside his writing, but that his photography has hitherto barely been recognised.
As the official representative of the Dutch government at the 3rd World Power Conference in Washington in 1936, Cool was already in the U.S. to discuss related matters. It seems that he used the opportunity to travel the country and record many public works under construction to show to Dutch engineers. Cool must have used his network of contacts in the engineering industry to gain access and get permission to photograph these large construction projects. As the map proves, a considerable amount of time and planning must have gone into his American Road Trip. Even so, the resulting photographs look fairly sloppy at first sight. The images lack focus. The composition is often awkward. Occasionally people crowd in on the edges of the picture, destroying a clear view of the subject matter at hand. These pictures were not taken to formally capture the surreal beauty of industry and technology as is the case for the Bauhaus photographers. Neither were they a means of propaganda to celebrate industrialisation and usher in a new socialist age like with Alexander Rodchenko’s images. Cool’s aim seems to have been to simply but enthusiastically record new developments in civil engineering.
In any case, Cool’s legacy forms an important counterpoint to the overriding image of the New Deal created by the FSA photographers, and an interesting example of the American Road Trip avant la lettre.
Nonetheless, not only is Cool’s American Road Trip unusual in its practicality, it also provides an alternative photographic representation of America’s New Deal policies. It can be argued that the photographers employed by the Farmer Security Administration have created an overriding but also a very particular image of the Depression in the U.S., in the form of a portrait of the impoverished rural population. Their imagery remains hugely influential to this day. It is interesting that two key policies of the New Deal, providing employment and modernising the country by commissioning public works and setting up a modern infrastructure, were given so little photographic attention at the time.
I believe that Cool’s American Road Trip is in fact a journey to many of the construction projects initiated or supported by the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration as part of the New Deal policies. Considering Cool’s background in engineering as well as his long-standing involvement in large public works, he was in a unique position to capture the results of these New Deal policies. And since Cool was not a U.S. citizen nor employed by the U.S. government, his photographs could not be appropriated as a form of propaganda. In any case, Cool’s legacy forms an important counterpoint to the overriding image of the New Deal created by the FSA photographers, and an interesting example of the American Road Trip avant la lettre.