Book Review: ‘Driving a Table Down’ by Barry Phipps

'Driving a Table Down'

By Barry Phipps -- University of Iowa Press

Recently, I did one of those frivolous lists one makes on social media — “My Ten Favorite Things You May Not Know About Me” — and I listed “dreaming and planning of road trips.” Like many, I had resentfully cancelled my 2020 holiday plans as the COVID-19 pandemic stretched further than anyone imagined. Barry Phipps’ book of road trip photographs from Iowa to Florida seems more than relevant for a year such as this. Austere, yet richly plucked from hidden gems still standing, Phipps’ work has a sophisticated aesthetic that is both delicious and satisfying.

Phipps’ journey south in September 2018 was an extension of his photographic work primarily in Iowa, combined with a practical purpose: taking his mother and her table from Missouri to his Aunt Diane in Florida. “Most of the trips I have taken throughout my life center around a task at hand … a functional vacation,” Phipps wrote. Whenever he travels, he said, he seeks an authentic regional experience, drawn to discover what is both geographically and culturally unique in that place.

Like a bowerbird, Phipps is looking for something. He is drawn to signage. Textures of unfinished painted surfaces, particularly if they are blue. Wry humor and the dignity of a place that used to mean something, as well as its fragility, and whether it will still be there tomorrow.

It is a common secret among those who habitually crisscross the country by car that the unexpected discoveries bring the most joy, forging memories that cannot be planned on an expensive flight itinerary: tucked away places that used to be tourist attractions long ago, visits to relatives who live in “ordinary places” and the connection to deceased ancestors and the relics they left behind.

Phipps was concerned that placing his family in the photographs would seem self-indulgent, but I found their fleeting presence endearing, and it perfectly complemented the other work that stood solely on elements of architecture and scenery. Whether his mother was peeking through a corner window of the car or beaming happily at her favorite fish restaurant in her hometown, this is the joy of family and road trips that we can relate to. Other characters, like his brother Scott with his vintage tour bus or the folk art paintings of his deceased grandfather C.A. Carmack and the church he built, express something quintessentially American.

The work is strong with the chosen subject matter and composition, forming a narrative as the book progresses. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of paired photographs such as Murphy Barber Shop and Peggy’s Beauty Shop, hinting at a relationship by association. Church buildings stood near disparate signs — “Foxy Lady Sarasota” sitting next to a Lutheran church in Florida, in contrast to the golden arches of McDonald’s featuring the breakfast special, next to a Lutheran church in Arkansas. Rusted unreadable tourist placards next to an industrial location lead one to wonder what on earth could have needed a permanent marker for the history of this place? Did developers win and erase something we will never see?

I could sense Phipps’ delight in his photograph “Aunt Diane (and signage graveyard)” in Sarasota, Florida. Clearly this is Phipps’ happy place: large, colorful block letters that were once on businesses and warehouses, now forming scrambled alphabet mounds in a junkyard. It could be an eerie metaphor for our economy and the sad plight of devastation to businesses Phipps had no way of predicting.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 286.

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