Road Scenes with Elizabeth West

There’s much freedom and spaciousness to find on the road–ever-changing vistas, warp-speed state-hopping, and the invitation to pay slow, thoughtful attention. San Francisco-based photographer Elizabeth West talks about the kind of seeing that comes along with the magic, liminal nature of road travel. Hop in for a ride.

How did you get started in photography and what inspired you to start?

Photography has always been an extension of my love for travel and exploration. The camera puts me into a kind of heightened state of seeing–with it, I’m more tuned in, more likely to notice the details and nuances that make a place what it is. Also I have a background in drawing and design, and I’ve always loved to create little compositions with the everyday scenes and objects in front of me. For me, photography can almost be like drawing on-the-go.

“The most important thing is getting myself into that curious, open, receptive state: being able to get out of my head and look around at simple things with a sense of wonder.”

Can you share a memorable experience that solidified your passion for capturing content on the road?

It was an extended trip to Japan and China in 2015. I’d just bought my first “good” camera (a Fuji X100), and was having this epic travel experience while simultaneously discovering and falling in love with my camera–the way it rendered depth and light, the way it helped me to pay attention. Each night, I’d sit on the hotel bed and review and reflect on everything I’d seen that day. It became a kind of ritual and routine that gave structure to my days, and allowed me to better process the experience I was having. I’m still very emotionally attached to that camera, I rarely use anything else! 

How did you approach capturing the essence of place through your photography?

With these road trip-type photos, it's all very spontaneous and intuitive–I don’t go in with an objective, and I don’t always have an answer for why I reach for the camera when I do. It could be because of the light, or an emotional state, or a memory, or often it’s simply a way to hang onto a moment or a place I won’t ever get back to. And in the end, if the photos are able to communicate something true about a place, or inspire others to get out on the road and explore too, I’m grateful for it.

Can you describe a special moment from a road trip in this series?

We made a last-minute, unplanned stop at the Petrified National Forest in Arizona and were blown away by the otherworldly landscape. To accidentally stumble upon a place as unique and spectacular as this was a reminder of just how vast and varied the U.S. is, and how there’s always more to see.


What was your favorite road trip you’ve taken and why?

I grew up in a sort of nomadic family; we were always moving back and forth between the east and west coasts. When I was 17, we moved from California to Boston, and my dad and I drove his car across together. I was devastated to leave California, but my parents always framed our moves as these grand adventures into the unknown, versus anything to be upset about. I remember staring out the window at Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, full of sadness and excitement and big teenage feelings–the melodrama of it all! While this may not have been my favorite road trip, it was certainly the most impactful, and the American cross-country roadtrip will always carry a heavy nostalgic weight for me. 

What do you feel when looking back on these photos? What does road-tripping mean to you?

Road-tripping is all about freedom. There is something almost intoxicating about those first few hours of an extended trip. Everything is heightened: music sounds better, colors are brighter, the car transforms into this kind of liminal space/adventure-mobile. Even stopping for gas or snacks in a strange town can be its own little thrill. When I look at these, I see a love for the road, a desire to be in motion, a desire to experience the unfamiliar.

What are some of the unique challenges that you remember about shooting this work?

On these trips we were crunched for time and spent the majority of each day in the car. So I’d take photographs out the window, or of the inside of the car, and would remember to always bring my camera to the gas station or the hotel breakfast buffet. I’d remind myself that my favorite photography tends to depict exactly these types of in-between moments–not just landmarks, noteworthy sites, or epic events. 

Where do you get your inspiration and source of creativity?

The most important thing is getting myself into that curious, open, receptive state: being able to get out of my head and look around at simple things with a sense of wonder. That part of me may not always be easy to access, but it’s always there. After that, it’s looking at paintings, watching movies, writing in my journal, music, podcasts, books, articles, drawing, long walks in Golden Gate Park with my dog, or planning the next trip.