By  on March 17, 2005

LONDON — Like so many young artists before him, photographer James Gooding hopped in a car and started looking in earnest for the soul of America. What he found, not surprisingly, was a lot of melancholic visages and lousy food.

“I wanted to go to a diner called Johnnie’s or something and have a burger and a milk shake, but most of what I found were strip malls, Wal-Marts and fast-food chains like Sizzler and Taco Bell,” says the British-born 29-year-old, whose show, “State,” has just opened at an underground venue in Belfast.

“There are some old-time diners, but they’ve become tourist attractions,” explains Gooding, sporting a rumpled Agnes B. suit and puffing on an American Spirit cigarette (how apt) at the Florence gallery in London.

Gooding’s “State,” which opens April 14 at Florence, features 25 of the some 4,000 color still life photos that he shot during his 14 months on the road. There are color-drenched images of rusty, abandoned cars; derelict churches and homes, and boarded-up buildings. The mood is eerie and lonely; it’s an America that’s wasted, neglected and depressed.

“Maybe it was just naïveté on my part, but it’s not what I thought it would be. What I saw was a sad poem,” said Gooding, who’s now based in Los Angeles. “The dusty little towns I had imagined from films and from reading ‘On The Road’ and ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ were there, but they were only the occasional blip on the map.”

Gooding, who traveled alone, spent more than a year on the road, staying in either motels (he always brought his own sheets, and slept with a giant flashlight and a knife) or pitching a tent. He covered nearly 38,000 miles in 30 states, including California, New Mexico, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Michigan.

He says his favorite part was the South; especially Louisiana, where he shot abandoned fishing boats, met men who crack open their first can of Bud at 9 a.m. and ate his share of gumbo. “There is a soul there, and a politeness,” says Gooding, who started life as a print model for Dolce & Gabbana, Paul Smith and Agnes B., and is best known in the U.K. as Kylie Minogue’s naughty, kiss-and-tell ex-boyfriend. “I loved all the ‘yes, sir,’ ‘no, sir.’”Gooding turned to photography after taking courses at the New York Film Academy. “State” is his first major show in the U.K., although he was part of a group show at London’s Proud Galleries in 2003.

As for his Kylie moment — they went out for three years, after which he sold his story to the London tabloid News of the World — he says he’s glad that period is behind him. “I’m getting on with life. I always had an idea of where I was going with my work, and I want to continue doing books and exhibitions.”

Next up is a photography project for a homeless charity in downtown L.A. and, well, more road trips. “I won’t do it again in a car. I’d do it in an RV, or I’d like to find an Airstream and fix it up in my driveway. I want to go to Eastern Europe, and to China before the 2008 Olympics,” he says. “Fundamentally, I’m a gypsy.”

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