A photo of a strip of fast-food outlets and gas stations is used to critique the sameness of the American landscape. But it could only be one place on Earth.
It’s summer, and for hundreds of thousands of Americans, that means at least one burger-and-bathroom break in Breezewood, Pennsylvania. This half-mile gauntlet of gas stations, fast-food outlets, and motels, its oversized signs towering above the surrounding countryside, is familiar to anyone who has to drive regularly from the East Coast to the Midwest or vice versa.
As the New York Times explained in 2017, Pennsylvania’s “Gas Vegas” sprang up because of an obsolete law. Breezewood is a deliberately awkward transition between Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where they (almost) meet. Back in the 1950s, as I-70 was being built, a law prohibited spending federal funds to channel drivers directly from a free road to a toll road. The law was later overturned, but to comply with it, highway planners designed a looping interchange that lets drivers avoid the turnpike if they (hypothetically) want to. From this constant stream of slow-moving traffic, a mega-rest-stop was born.
Each year, an estimated 3.5 million passenger vehicles and 1.5 million trucks crawl along the Breezewood strip on Route 30. Yet building a bypass here is a political nonstarter. Such projects must be proposed at the township and county levels in Pennsylvania, and no politician is going to suggest the elimination of hundreds of local jobs.
So vacation stops in Breezewood have become a tradition for many families (including my own). More recently, a parallel tradition has emerged: sharing Breezewood memes online. Most of these memes feature the same, striking image of the strip, dominated by Exxon and McDonald’s signs: “Breezewood,” by photographer Edward Burtynsky.
If you’re on social media a lot, you know this image. You may even be sick of it by now.
Some people share the photo in appreciation of its aesthetic qualities. For example, you can find it on various Instagram fine-art accounts with approving comments. But Breezewood memeing is mostly a form of cultural critique. A common refrain is the supposed homogeneity of the American landscape. For instance, a meme posted recently on Imgur pairs the photo with the caption, “Every Small Town Off the Highway in the U.S. Ever.” Another poster on r/memes titles the image “This is America.” Or take this tweet:
For some Twitter users, the image brings on a tide of nostalgia for childhood trips to Grandma’s house, or sadness at the decay of Breezewood’s once-proud mom-and-pop motor-lodge scene. For others, the photo speaks to the relentless march of globalization and a deficit of high culture.
It’s true that it would be hard to find a purer distillation of American car culture in one image. A gas station occupies the whole foreground of the photo and seems to merge into the diner behind it, a blurring of our hunger for food with our appetite for fossil fuels. There are plenty of cars in the picture and several semi-trailers, but no humans that the eye can make out.
Not surprisingly, Breezewood memes pop up regularly in the huge Facebook group New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens. One, a play on the “ideal male body” meme, reads, “This is the ideal American city. You may not like it, but this is what peak freedom looks like.” Another crossover meme superimposes two cartoon characters on the photo with the words, “Damn, bitch, you live like this?”
However, the idea that the photo is placeless is, to be blunt, nonsense. As others have pointed out before me, the setting is instantly recognizable as Breezewood and only Breezewood. Far from being “Every Town, U.S.A.,” Breezewood is a weird, improbable blip of a place. It’s what an architect might call a unique urban condition—a churning mini-city where the population nearly turns over every hour. (For this reason, and for the place’s sheer, unembarrassed honky-tonk, I’m a Breezewood fan.)
Nor is the photo’s composition a lucky accident. Edward Burtynsky is a famous photographer, the subject of a New Yorker profile whose work is in the Guggenheim. He took the picture in 2008, as part of a project called Oil that became a book of the same name.
Oil is a global exploration of the life cycle of petroleum—from extraction to distribution to consumption—featuring Burtynsky’s signature large-scale aerial views of oil fields and refineries, as well as secondary petro-landscapes such as highway cloverleafs and tire piles at the dump. Burtynsky, who lives in Toronto, heard about Breezewood from a photographer he works with, Marcus Schubert, and thought it might yield a good image for the project.
Getting such a striking image of the place took a lot more work than most meme-sharers might realize. Burtynsky told me he spent three days in town scouting vantage points and setting up the shot. He often shoots from helicopters, but here he relied on an earthbound rig.
“I’d rented a four-wheel drive and a scissor lift that had the ability to take me up 80 feet,” he recalled. “I was just driving around everywhere with it, hiking it up and looking for the point of view. I kept trying and trying, and no, no, no. Eventually, near the end of the second day, I found this motel slightly up on a hill. And in the parking lot of the motel, if I hiked [the lift] up and used a slightly longer lens, which adds to the compression, I was able to create the shot.”
Burtynsky’s scissor lift gave him a perspective very different from that of the average road-tripper stopping for a Frappuccino. At ground level, the Breezewood strip looks looser; its stores and signs seem much farther apart. The photographer’s god’s-eye view organizes these jumbled elements into a kind of skyline. Compressed into the frame, the 20-odd highway signs on their spindly posts suggest an uncanny city of logos without buildings, commerce without people.
In a sense, then, “Breezewood” is both singular and generic. It takes an extreme instance (Breezewood) of a common urban feature (the Sunoco-and-Taco-Bell strip) and makes it hyperreal through the photographer’s artifice.
Burtynsky is aware that his photo has achieved memehood, and believes that’s a sign of its resonance. It gets reproduced officially quite often, he said, and the prints have sold out, which means that it’s popular with the public and collectors alike. (A print of the photo that Sotheby’s sold in 2017 was estimated at $15,000–25,000; it went for $43,750.) “In one image, it tells a lot about our culture and our commerce,” he said, “and the whole notion of drive-through culture … and that we’re a car-dependent, oil-dependent culture.”
But that doesn’t mean that Burtynsky—who most recently completed The Anthropocene Project, a multimedia collaboration with Nicholas de Pencier and Jennifer Baichwal—is ready to ban all cars. He’s still a driver. “I just got rid of my hybrid. I have an electric car—a Tesla,” he told me. “What the electric car’s allowed me to do is to still have an enjoyable ride and be very green about it.” If he passes through Breezewood again, he won’t need gas, but he could always use the charging station at the Sheetz.
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