The United States is a massive country, full of as many different things to photograph as there are different identities, ways of living, and cultures. States, cities, and regions all have unique and overlapping traditions that come together to make the rich and multifaceted fabric of our society. Yet there are symbols, features, and visual themes that are recognizable as distinctly American, somehow encapsulating all of our communities and representing ideals that we can identify with. This is “Americana,” a theme embodied in pastimes like baseball stadiums, great works of architecture, and increasingly in the pictures of popular photographers.

Americana can also be much more pedestrian. Here I’ve endeavored to explain the evolution of this visual zeitgeist into a real photography trend in recent years. Americana is everywhere in pictures on Instagram, and is a theme I’ve tried to incorporate into the images I’ve snapped this year. 

If you’re a photography enthusiast and have noticed an uptick in photos on Instagram of old motels, classic cars, gas stations, laundromats, drive-in theaters, and so on, this is the Americana I’m referring to. The aesthetic appeal of vintage and mid-century American relics is not entirely new, but more and more serious photographers are making a name for themselves by capturing these subjects. Dino Kuznik, Joe Greer, and YouTube king himself Willem Verbeeck are all in on this trend, but not all of us have the time and resources to travel far and wide looking for the most nostalgic and photogenic American icons — especially not right now!

Let’s take a look at how we can distill our photographs with that “Americana” quality when we’re just walking around our neighborhoods. 

Keep an Eye Out for Classics

 

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Maybe it’s not every day that you see a classic Ford Mustang, Dodge Charger, or other vintage automobile that oozes cool, but I’m willing to bet that if you spend enough time walking the streets of your city — or even driving around a rural area — you’ll see a throwback vehicle or some kind. Whether they’re especially beautiful or not isn’t really the point here, because so long as we’re emulating this photographic trend, the stylistic choices like lighting and framing are arguably more important. 

On a walk through my neighborhood in Chicago, I managed to find an old Bronco parked in someone’s yard, a baby blue Cadillac, and an old muscle car decked out in Chicago Bears colors. None of these cars stand out as remarkable while you stroll down the street, but they were curiosities and altogether a little more eccentric than the rows of sedans and minivans. I got up close and personal with all of them, trying to capture the ideas that they represent more than the specifics of the vehicles themselves, if that makes sense. Think of this as photographic synecdoche — where the part (a car) represents the whole (America’s yesteryear). 

Practice People Watching

 

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My photos based on this piece of advice are far inferior to any given Dino Kuznik or Joe Greer example, but photographer Wesley Verhoeve recently echoed the number one rule for finding your photographic voice in his newsletter: always be shooting. I’m guilty of taking the low hanging fruit as a photographer, waiting for landscapes or buildings to be covered in the light I want and then shooting. It’s much harder for me to pay attention to the intimate details of people’s behavior on the street, but that’s why it’s all the more important that I try. 

Walk around enough and you’ll notice that Americans end up doing some very American things a lot of the time: they buy snow cones, they hang out on boardwalks, they fly kites. 

Look Homeward

 

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Our comfort zone, our dominion, our domain — houses and homes look different in almost every American locale, and the private world they contain is sometimes only hinted at by their outward appearance. But closer looks reveal so much about the people that live there: do they hang a flag? Is their lawn overgrown, or intensely manicured? Are there plants in the windows? How tall is the fence? Looking at photographs of other houses, there’s probably something familiar you can recognize in it, and I think the power of association that photographs with “Americana” possess is the most significant thing about them. They can reveal very little, and even be quite minimalist, but still evoke a lot of emotions around the country we call home. 

Shoot at Night

 

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A lot of photographers riding the Americana wave right now can cheat a little sometimes by heading for places like California that naturally (or by design) have the cinematic quality to them that is signature to this aesthetic. If you’ve never shot at night, don’t be intimidated — there’s a lot of room to experiment and a bigger margin of error than you might imagine. Find yourself a cheap tripod and a remote shutter release if you think you need it, and hit the streets. If you have a digital or programmable camera, you’ll need to go manual for this exercise; the high ISO they’ll revert to will give your photos undesirable noise and grain.

americana diner at night

Shoot a low ISO, anywhere from 100 to 800, and adjust your aperture and shutter speed accordingly. Click here for more information on shooting at night, and wait as the longer exposure works its magic. 

Shoot on Film 

The renaissance of film photography has occurred in tandem with a lot of other trends. Many people use the vintage format to give their photos a more vintage look, while some simply prefer the medium and believe it makes for higher quality images. If you don’t yet have a film camera, it’s one of the best ways to reignite your passion for photography and work with a different set of challenges. Many people acquire their first through a relative, but a lot of old film SLRs are still readily available on the marketplace and are even cheaper than digital options. For beginners, the Canon AE-1 and Minolta SRT series are fantastic options that can be found on Facebook, eBay, in thrift stores, et cetera for less than $100. Here’s more information on the basics of film photography

americana scene with budweiser sign
classic americana with flag in front yard

Almost all the images of my own that I’ve included in this piece were shot on film, and I love the grainy look that a 35mm camera gives you. I still struggle with exposing my photos correctly, but you can easily download a light meter app on your phone or buy a physical meter online. Personally, I would argue that the process of shooting film lends more to cinematic and documentary-style photography that serves to create better memories. Film doesn’t pull any punches when you get it wrong, but the learning process is all a part of the charm. 

Have a story about your journey to find your photographic voice? Share with us in the comments or on Twitter

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Joseph Ozment
Originally from Tennessee, Joseph Ozment is a writer and musician whose relationship with travel was shaped by growing up between the Southern U.S., Wales, and Hong Kong. So far, he's written for a newspaper in Russia, released a handful of home recordings, and started a novel (with plans for more, someday). When he's not busy running country roads or cheering on Liverpool FC, he's most likely making the next cup of coffee, or plans for the next trip.