Photographer Jen Zahigian, a resident of Oakland, California’s Waterfront District, has a relationship with photography that dates back to her childhood when her grandfather introduced her to the art. Her personal history informs her work, as does the mid-twentieth century history of California’s popular roadside attractions and establishments. While Zahigian’s photographs are a document of sites that have long held her appreciation for their aesthetic appeal and their place in her memory, they also express a philosophical position associated with the mid to late twentieth century American landscape of the road.
Many of Zahigian’s photographs depict California highway establishments and their signage. She frequently takes as her subjects such places as diners, motels and convenience stores. Clearly Zahigian has an appreciation for their dated aesthetic, with their patina of rust and neglect. Some of these subjects are sites from her youth, such as the desolate hamburger stand in “Mammoth Orange,” and the interior of “Pot Pie Shop.” Frequently, her photographs are composed to present only bits of information. Yet there is always enough that the results are deeply evocative, employing an economical and stately formalism.
Because many of Zahigian’s photographs are related explicitly and implicitly to the road and travel, they bear a bittersweet sense of impermanence and transience. Zahigian’s subject matter speaks to a sense of nostalgia for an American landscape that rushes past the windshield during a journey away, or back home.
A distinctly American brand of existentialism is evident through the tone, composition, and subject matter of Zahigian’s photographs. This lonesome highway existentialism is typified by such New Hollywood road movies as Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider” (1969), and in particular Monte Hellman’s “Two Lane Blacktop” (1971). Many of Zahigian’s photos could almost be stills from “Two Lane Blacktop,” a film marked by quietude and a foreboding sense of alienation.
Jen Zahigian’s camera searches for and selects meaning from historical roadside monuments—monuments to travel, transience, and movement. The viewer is put in the position of the existential wanderer, making meaning from the associations they draw individually from her photographs.
Jen Zahigian’s photographs are exhibited extensively in many galleries and boutiques in the Bay Area, and have been exhibited at SFMOMA. Her photographs can also be seen on-line at these sites: