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On The Road With Jeff Luker

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The work of American photographer Jeff Luker is imbued with personal meaning; the camera has both informed where he has traveled, and enabled him to capture all that he has seen of the world.

Luker grew up on a small farm in a tiny rural town on the South Shore of Massachusetts, America. He had what he describes as an idyllic childhood, but one punctured by intermittent chaos, and realized from a young age that travel can be an exciting form of escapism. As an adult Luker became restless with country life, and so moved to Boston, then New York, and then to Portland in Oregon, where he currently lives. He now travels the world for work as a photographer, capturing images of experiences that are almost visceral to the viewer. We spoke to Luker about where the desire to explore the unfamiliar stems from, and why social media has created an experience envy in us all.

"I was interested in the feeling you get in the middle of nowhere... the cowboy mysticism that lingers across the lonely highways"
Bison crossing a road in Wyoming in the late spring.

Bison crossing a road in Wyoming in the late spring.

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Leigh at Crater Lake, Oregon. A very mysterious place, a lot of lore and mythology surrounds it. The energy there is very powerful and palpable.

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The Grand Tetons, Wyoming. It's hard to capture the awe of them in photographs, their beauty is stupefying.

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Campfire smoke in the morning light.

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Natalie's snake.

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Dreamcatcher on an Arizona roadside.

Can you tell us a little about where your travel work was captured—what countries did you venture to and for how long?

I have spent a lot of time exploring the American West. I never wanted to be a travel photographer per se, for me what I was ,interested in was wide open spaces, the feeling you get in the middle of nowhere, finding strange magic in small towns, and the cowboy mysticism that lingers across the lonely highways of America. I have been very fortunate that the photography gods smiled upon me and I have been able to travel all over the world now through photography work. I just got back recently from Mexico, Dubai, Japan, then Hawaii, living out of a suitcase.

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Rosalie and dead coyotes on a farmer's fence in Eastern Oregon.

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Fog rising through the forest in Wyoming.

What is your most memorable road trip experience?

The first time I ever drove across America was with my friends was in 2007, right after college. It was an interesting time in the USA; the end of the George W. Bush era, and pre-smartphones and Instagram. It felt very pure, exciting, and scary because there wasn’t technology to hold your hand every step of the way. That was a life-changing trip for me.

The first night, after we drove all day, we camped in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and this giant pink moon was hanging in the sky. I remember lying in my tent, staring out at the moon, thinking if I want to go home now it was just a day’s drive, but after tomorrow it will be too late. That feeling of the point of no return, of being far from home and that every day would be an unknown obstacle, made that trip so memorable and that feeling stuck with me and propelled a lot of my work. There is always that trepidation at the beginning of a journey, and whether it is fun, inspiring, arduous, or scary, it comes with a bittersweet joy of returning home, but also missing that freedom of life on the road.

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Afternoon light on Julia's back.

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Prism at Twister Falls in Oregon. This whole area got ravaged by forest fires two summers ago, not sure what is left.

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Roadside fires in Oregon.

Where does your desire to explore the unfamiliar stem from?

Growing up in a small town, it could feel very closed off from the world, and we never had any money to travel or go anywhere. My family life as a kid was also filled with some strife and chaos, and I was motivated by the idea that escaping where you are from would lead to personal happiness, which it does in some regards. Once I recognized how easy it was to set out, that all you really needed was gas money and a few camping supplies, that was a big realization.

Do you think social media has created an ‘experience envy’? Is this something that has happened to you?

Yes, it’s totally changed how we experience every aspect of life and is definitely a medium that creates feelings of envy, jealousy or missing out. I don’t think it was supposed to be that way; at its roots, Instagram was such a great idea—just sharing an iPhone photo. But it has morphed into a beast of a different nature, and now people use it to show how amazing their lives are, or to create brands for themselves and sell things.

Of course, I have gotten ‘experience envy’, you see people having some crazy time and you question your own life and what you are doing. But you realize how bizarre it is, and then you don’t really feel envious anymore. I think photography is an art form and yet a lot of people are replicating things they have seen online. It has changed the way we look at, consume and create photography because ultimately the semiotics of what we previously thought made a good photograph are morphing towards something that accounts for the largest universal appeal.

“Instagram has morphed into a beast of a different nature, and now people use it to show how amazing their lives are”
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Girls warming up in a red blanket at the Salmon River.

What do you aim to capture through your photography?

I always wanted to create photography that feels sort of like poetry, something visceral, fleeting and beautiful but that contains a personal emotional truth within it. I want to create photographs that give a sense of who I am and my relationship to the subject and the world. Ultimately a camera is just a machine that captures light, so my goal has been to imbue a product of something mechanized with a sense of authorship, intention, and humanity.

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This is the best campsite I ever had. I found it with my girlfriend by accident when we couldn't find a place to camp one night and we ended up staying there for days.

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Fading light at Monument Valley, Utah.

All images © Jeff Luker