Matt Frondorf says he’s so thoroughly an engineer, he even daydreams in straight lines. So when he daydreamed about a drive across America, he saw the trip as a straight line from coast to coast. Matt began his roadside tableau in New York City, where he framed the Statue of Liberty and shot his first photo. Then he headed west to San Francisco on as straight a line as possible, a camera at his side clicking away at precise one-mile increments, for 3,304 miles. When the camera clicked, it captured whatever happened to be on that particular American roadside—a stretch of empty highway, a street in a Midwest town, a used car lot, a herd of Herefords.

“I think I got what I hoped to get,” he says. “I wanted to be able to assemble long, continuous pieces to get a feel for vastness. To look at one wheat field doesn’t have the same quality as looking at the whole wheat belt.”

As Matt drove through the wheat belt, he noticed that he was not the only one who thought in straight lines. Section surveyors in the 19th century had laid out a grid that produced lines of farm roads exactly one mile apart. “Just as the camera clicked, there would be a road right in the picture,” he remembers. “Then another and then another. Finally it came to me that I was catching section lines exactly a mile apart. So I decided to get out of sync.”

Born in Cincinnati in 1957, Matt grew up in Phoenix and graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in chemical engineering. He went to work in the oil and gas industry of Texas, settling down in San Antonio. He works for himself as a consulting engineer specializing in the finding and processing of natural gas.

Matt calls his mile marker project “statistical photography.” “A lot of photography tends to be anecdotal and heavily edited,” he says. “And it doesn’t present what is really there—every picture from beginning to end.

“The statistical approach opens up other projects. Think about a crowd at a baseball game. Why not a picture of every person who goes to a ballgame? Or a picture of every minute of the game. Or shoot an entire train, car by car, maybe 120 cars. It would be a great effect. Of course, when I talk about ideas like this, some people get puzzled looks on their faces.”

Making 35-mm Mile Markers

Matt made his camera-clicking trip twice. Both times, using a tripod and clamps, he mounted a camera so that it pointed out the passenger’s window. On his first try, he drove a Porsche and “didn’t do enough research,” he says. “I drove the Interstates with a 35-mm wide-angle lens. Interstates bypass small-town America, and when I-70 goes through the Rocky Mountains, you just get close-up rock faces. Besides, the car was so low-slung I got a lot of guardrails.”

On his next trip, in a high-slung Ford Explorer, he traveled on old highways, mostly U.S. 30, 40 and 50. “I wanted to get the wheat fields, and I didn’t want to find just stubble. So before I started out I picked out a county in Kansas and found the county agriculture agent. He said that they harvested just after the Fourth of July, and I knew I would be OK if I went in June, when the days are longest.”

Each day, when the light began to fade, he marked the spot and started searching for a motel. Next morning he backtracked to the marker and resumed the trip, which took six days. His only companion was his camera, a Canon T-90 with a 35-mm wide-angle lens and a motor drive. Shooting through an open window meant no air-conditioning, so he kept the Kodak 5028 VPH film in a cooler. “I would count the miles,” he says. “As soon as the thirty-sixth came, I would change rolls, put the exposed roll in a canister, enter its number on a log sheet, take the next one out of the cooler, and insert it. I got to where I could do all that in less than a minute, while steering with my kneecap.”

Every time a mile ended, a device attached to the odometer made an electric contact that triggered the shutter release. If a cement wall or other nearby object blocked the view, he had a switch that would delay a picture for a moment.

“I wanted what I did to be seamless and moving like me, east to west. So I mounted the camera upside down, which allowed the contact prints to be oriented in the proper east to west, left to right orientation.” He set the camera with an automatic exposure that would hold the shutter speed (4000th of a second) constant and adjust the aperture as the daylight changed. “Using a little trig,” he figured with the 63 degree field of view afforded by the camera lens, each exposure would produce a frame with a mile-wide view at a point 0.82 of a mile from the road. This gives uniformity to the frames and helps to create the panorama aspect.

When Matt got to San Francisco and shot the Golden Gate Bridge at mile 3,304, he celebrated with a pizza and a beer. It was a Friday, six days after he left New York. He dismounted the camera, drove home, and was back in his office on Monday morning.

If you’d like to write Matt about his trip, send him an Email.