A Snapshot of Life in America in 1981

The magic of a young artist’s carefree trip across the country four decades ago

Sunset Drive In, San Luis Obispo 7/25/1981 "Let's hope young people today can get fascinated by the aura of that time," Kappeler says. (Simone Kappeler)
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History zeroes in on exciting, revolutionary events—disruptions, today’s disruptors like to say—but it’s a fair bet that ordinary people, when we look back, are fondest of unremarkable times. A new book of photographs revisits a year within living memory that now seems enviable in that way: 1981.

Simone Kappeler, a Swiss photographer, then 29 years old and fresh out of art school, spent three months traveling from New York City to Los Angeles in a used Gran Torino station wagon with a friend and a suitcase full of cameras. Her book, Simone Kappeler—America 1981, published by Scheidegger and Spiess, is a captivating album of horizons glimpsed and encounters chanced across a vast, open, easygoing country that you might have some trouble recognizing right now.

Her visit happened to take place during a lull in the socio-political action: after the ’60s, the Vietnam War and Watergate, but before the chronic turmoil of the decades to come. Before AIDS, before computers, the internet and smartphones, before the Gulf War, 9/11 and the War on Terror, before the Great Recession and the violence leading to Black Lives Matter, before Covid-19.

Kappeler had no itinerary other than seeing Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon and reaching the West Coast, and she recalls often pulling over, reclining the seats and sleeping among the big rigs. The appeal of her photographs, created with technical sophistication in a variety of formats, isn’t so much the subjects, which include some pretty standard roadtrip fare—motel pools, tourist spots, neon-lit streets—but her smiling regard for this astonishing land and its people. It’s impossible not to enjoy these pictures because she was so clearly enjoying herself. “I not only discovered America, but also my own self and friendship and living independently,” Kappeler says from her home in Frauenfeld, Switzerland. “And I discovered all the potential of photography.”

I wouldn’t call it nostalgia, this affection for the uneventful past. It’s not about pining for traditional values or the phony simplicity of limited options. On the contrary, in those less demanding times, things open up. History loosens its grip. Imagination roams. Isn’t that a kind of freedom? Look at Kappeler’s spirited pictures and decide.

Roller Skating, Manhattan 5/17/1981
Roller Skating, Manhattan 5/17/1981 "I wanted to photograph in a new, spontaneous way," the artist recalls. "I think America was the perfect place at that time for me." (Simone Kappeler)
Elk City, Oklahoma 5/23/1981
Elk City, Oklahoma 5/23/1981(Simone Kappeler)
Lake Erie 6/10/1981
Lake Erie 6/10/1981(Simone Kappeler)
Disneyland 7/15/1981
Disneyland 7/15/1981 (Simone Kappeler)
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