When you think of the word “paradise,” what image comes to mind? A tropical island? A serene forest? A snow-capped mountain? Everyone probably has a slightly different version of what paradise means to them, but to photographer Eliot Dudik, it means taking a look at places that don’t fit the typical description at all.

For his new series of photographs, Paradise Road, Dudik, who uses his work to explore the connection between landscapes, culture, memory, and politics, has photographed 90 of the 196 roads that are actually called “Paradise Road” across the United States, in places like Smithville, Mo., Orrville, Ohio, and Northport, Maine.
These photos might be of a lonely gas station near a windswept intersection, or rolling green fields populated by farm animals, or a parched stream struggling towards a nearby river. Dudik simply captured whatever landscape awaited his lens on Paradise Road, somehow rendering images heavy with pride, loneliness, and unexpected beauty.

“My interest in the subject started with one Paradise Road, in Spring Mills, Penn.,” Dudik says. “That’s where I grew up. I was lying in my bed at my father’s house over the winter holidays, and as I was about to fall asleep. I had a flash of a Paradise Road sign cross my consciousness. I thought about what that meant and why I was seeing it in my mind. The next morning I looked at a map of where my father and I had been driving the day before, and sure enough, we had passed a road called Paradise Road, which is quite likely one of the reasons it popped into my head later that night.”

From that brief flash of inspiration came the idea for a massive new project, but there was a larger, more troubling emotion behind Dudik’s new quest. “I spent that next morning researching and mapping all the Paradise Roads I could find across the country, and set out that afternoon to start photographing what I found on them,” he says. “At the time this project started, before the last election, I was feeling quite anxious about my future as well as the future of our nation. Traveling the country to visit these sites became a way for me to not only consider the direction and desires of my own life, but to also attempt a sort of typology of American happiness across all regions of the United States during the first part of the 21st century, and after the biggest recession since the Great Depression.”

For whatever reason, most of the Paradise Roads in America are in rural areas, which Dudik thought would provide him a great deal of variety. But despite some differences, he was somewhat startled at the commonalities he found.

“I’ve been surprised at how similar these roads are across the country,” he says. “I’ve visited most regions of the United States and haven’t seen the diversity I expected. I think people who actually think they’ve found paradise named some of these roads, and others seemed to be a way of lightening the burden of a heavy situation, in a sad kind of way. But that is my projection, our perception of paradise varies greatly, and I try to avoid that when I look at and photograph these places.”

Dudik found more diversity in phase two of his project, a connected exhibition called Paradise Out Front. For that series of photos, Dudik curated a group of 13 photographers and asked them to respond with their own ideas of what “paradise” means to them.

“I wanted to produce an exhibition with some artists I admire whose work directly or indirectly addresses ideas of paradise in diverse ways,” he says. “The title Paradise Out-Front is intended to describe an honest, direct, and sincere mode of transmission on the subject. This exhibition isn’t intended to be an all-encompassing exploration of paradise, however it will hopefully begin a dialog about what we find most important in this life to focus our time and energy on, to work and fight for. These artists in Paradise Out-Front help me to begin that conversation; begin to express the diversity of human wants and needs, and begin to help all of us understand each other a little more.”

The Southern, a contemporary art gallery in Charleston opened by Justin & Erin Nathanson about a year ago, is hosting a joint exhibition of Paradise Road and Paradise Out-Front starting this Fri. Jan. 27, and Erin Nathanson says that the theme means a lot to the gallery owners personally.
“This idea of paradise is different for everyone,” she says. “We’ve all been striving for different dreams. And I guess you could say over the past year, Justin and I, by opening this gallery, were in a sense putting together our own paradise. You might have visions of sandy beaches and gorgeous architecture, but by taking these photos Eliot captured a different perspective. And we think it’s important to bring that to Charleston and to our gallery, and to support an artist like Eliot. I love when an artist commits to an idea that might take years to complete, but at the end of the day they just feel that passionate about the subject.”

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