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I would like to say that my whole photography career began with shooting motel signs, but that would be a lie on a few counts. First, it’s not really a career. Not a paying one, at least. A love affair? Maybe. An intimate relationship with my subject? Absolutely. Whatever it is, I would like to say that it all started with motel signs, but that’s the other lie – it did not.
I began by photographing my dog, my friends, my family. This was when I was in my single digits and was shooting a Brownie style camera with 127 film, developing it in my basement and making contact prints with strange-smelling chemicals that would leave my hands stained for days. I was around 8 years old when this dissolute habit began.
When I was around 11, I moved on to an Instamatic camera that shot 110 film – it was tiny for its day and it used flash cubes. By the age of 13, I had stolen my brother’s Olympus Pen half frame camera – you could shoot 72 frames on one roll of 35 millimeter film. My subject matter broadened. I would shoot parking lots, cars, guitars and strange vistas in Yonkers that I found while bicycling. I began to carry a camera with me at all times.
I got my first serious camera, an Olympus OM-1 with a 50mm lens, when I was in my late teens. This single-lens reflex precision machine inspired me to think more about what I was photographing. I would shoot strange still-life compositions, I would document events, take photos of girlfriends and streets in Manhattan. I began to shoot the mosaic signs and decorations in the New York subway system. The film I used was so slow that it was a test of my handholding and breathing skills.
I began to see things differently. The more you shoot, the more your eye gets trained. At some point in the mid 1980s, I pawned that camera – still loaded with a roll of exposed film – at a pawn shop on 9th Avenue. I never got it back and I wonder if anybody ever developed that film and saw all those subway mosaics.
I eventually got my life back together and started traveling again. This was in the 1990s. I needed something for snapshots, so I went through some decent point-and-shoot cameras of the day, from a Rollei C35 to a Yashica T4 to some Fuji whose model name I have forgotten. I was documenting vacations more than anything else. I went to Lake George in 1990 and fell in love with a few motel signs that I saw, but I put little effort into photographing them.
On a trip to Florida, though, I shot a motel sign that stuck with me. When I got that film back from the photo lab, I woke up again to photography. I went to the local used camera shop on Christopher Street. That place could not exist now, but it did then. I got a very worn, used Olympus OM2n, along with a 35mm lens. I also bought a few generic lenses to round out my arsenal. I started to take more trips, saw more of the country, and began to hunt for the motel signs.
I have written about my love of motel signs elsewhere in the Zephyr. They are a direct link to the past that I love to romanticize. I became methodical about shooting them. I’m not sure if I was operating from an aesthetic at first, but I was developing a method. I was collecting these signs. And, of course, the more you shoot, the more you think about how the shot looks. You slowly begin to know what your shot will look like BEFORE you shoot it.
It became a pastime, then a passion. I would arrive in a town and scout out the signs. I still do when I travel. At some point in 2000 or 2001, I bought www.motelsign.com, which I was surprised to find available. When Instagram was born, I took the handle @motelsign. And I shot a lot of motel signs along the way. I still do. Of course, our habits change, our skills improve – hopefully – and our horizons broaden. I like all sorts of vernacular, verbiage, semiotics and signs. I probably always did, as I think back to my subway tile shots.
Words in motion. Words and letters and lights and the sky behind them. The sun, the darkness, the messages. It never ceases to fascinate me. I shoot much more than motel signs now, but I have never tired of them. As social media has come to dominate our lives, I have discovered many photographers who seem to be on their own path of a love affair with signs, motels and old ephemera from the road. Some are artists and some do it just to collect.
I like everything about staying at a motel. From the strangeness of checking in and meeting the desk clerk – often my first human contact after hours on the road – to returning to the vehicle, telling the dog “we’re home” and then finding a parking spot. I love turning off the engine, exiting the car, and sniffing the air, just to orient myself to whatever part of the country I am in.
I like checking out the room, making sure I find no bedbugs, seeing how they have set up the bathroom – a Motel 6 is much more spartan and consistent than a pricier chain. What kind of soap do they have? I always need more for my traveling collection. Do they have those horrible canisters of liquid soap and shampoo on the shower walls? Are the towels clean? Is there a fridge? Is there a tiny note pad and a pen? Did the Gideons get there before me? How good is the lock? Do the curtains close all the way? Does the heater or air conditioner work? These are all things I check in the first few minutes.
Most important, do I have horrible neighbors? The real bane of motel life is neighbors. I wrote about this once in a previous issue of the Zephyr. Is there a family of elephants above me tonight? A group of drunks watching TV on one side? Two guys waiting for some hookers on the other side? A guy in the parking lot, chain smoking and cleaning his portable air compressor? I am sure to find out soon after I check in.
The great thing about motels is that all of these problem neighbors are gone the next day, unlike the family that currently lives above me in my New York apartment with wooden subfloors. That couple now has a one-year old toddler and, due to the pandemic, they are home all day, every day, working and playing with the kid. I wish I could just pack up and drive away in the morning, never to hear their odd assortment of steps, crashes, scrapes and sonic explosions again. If only. It’s happening as I type these words.
At a motel, I wake up before dawn, briefly remember that I’m in another place – what year is this? What’s my name? Who’s president? And what town or godforsaken highway junction am I parked at? Those quiet moments in the dawn when I know I will soon be hauling my gear out to the car, starting the engine, walking the dog, and getting out of Dodge with the wind at my back, no matter which way the wind is blowing. Leaving home for a day on the road, only to arrive at a new home again that evening.
I like shooting motels because it means I’m out on the road. And, if I’m on the road, it means I’m driving in strange parts of the country. AND, if I’m driving around the country, it means I’m eating interesting food in interesting places. So yes, it always comes back to food. And it comes back to light and the memory of darkroom chemicals sloshing around under amber and red light bulbs, my mom yelling upstairs for me to come up from the basement and do my homework.
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