This interview was originally conducted by Lucas Shaffer of PhotoEye for PhotoEye Blog. It has been adapted for The Velvet Cell Journal. You can read the original interview here: http://blog.photoeye.com/2016/12/interview-steve-fitch-on-american-motel.html
Lucas Shaffer: How did American Motel Signs get started?
Steve Fitch: Photographing motel signs, in color, grew out of an earlier project in black and white where I made photographs along America's two-lane highways. Some of these photographs were of neon motel signs at night and were published in my book, Diesels and Dinosaurs: Photographs from the American Highway in 1976.
LS: What draws you to photograph the motel signs; why are they compelling?
SF: I guess I am attracted to photographing motel signs because they are like trail markers for my highway explorations. The signs I photographed are all one-of-a-kind signs/sculptures that were designed and fabricated by local sign shops that employed skilled craftsmen such as metal workers, neon benders and painters. They were signs found mostly along our country's two-lane highways before the onslaught of motel franchises with their exact same sign at dozens or hundreds of locations throughout the country. All Motel 6 signs, for example, are identical whereas the signs that I discover and like to photograph are each unique--there is only one. In some ways, they are like folk art to me.
There is also another aspect to my interest in motel signs where it doesn't particularly matter that they are motel signs. What does matter is the idea of theme and variation, how a collection can be interesting because of the variety of specimens. A collection of butterflies illustrates this idea, for example, and photography is such a great medium for "collecting and comparing" which is what my motel sign project is ultimately all about. I can make photographs of signs that exist in different locations and display them together in a manner that allows the viewer to make his or her own comparisons. The contemporary word for this is "typology", I believe.
LS: How has your view of the project changed or evolved through the decades?
SF: The first square shaped, color image of a motel sign that I made was in 1979. From the beginning, I intuitively sensed that I wanted the individual sign to reside in a pictorial space that included some of the space around the sign--I didn't want to just come in tight on the sign. My compositions are not complicated a la Lee Friedlander, for example, but I do pay attention to the structure of the images and how to organize what is surrounds the sign. I am still making photographs of motel signs when I find an interesting one (which is rarer and rarer). In fact, last week on a trip to Texas I photographed a sign in Vaughn, New Mexico--a town where I have made many photographs over the years. I don't think that my view of the project has changed much other than the fact that they are now being published.
LS: Do you have a favorite sign, or a particularly memorable experience while photographing a motel sign?
SF: I have many "favorite" signs but if I had to pick one that is in the book and show, it might be the Christmas Motel. I think it is a wonderfully crazy sign with the metal box (or "can") being "wrapped" in neon like a Christmas package. Wow! No corporate franchise would ever come up with a sign like that!
LS: What is your process like; how do you find the motels? Do you follow a map or do you come across them serendipitously?
SF: The way I discover signs to photograph is simply through traveling on our highways. I don't really employ any methodology other than to make a point of exploring all the highways that might be coming in or out of a given town. From a map, I can often get a sense of what roads might have motels that would be of interest to me: they tend to be U.S. highways that cover great distances such as U.S. 6 or 2 or 40 or 61 or, of course, 66. These were/are roads that carried many people over many miles, some of which have been mythologized such as Route 66. Today, the interstates carry so much of our long distance traffic and, as we know, they are dominated by the franchise chains and a suffocating sameness.
LS: How does this work fit alongside your other series, like Western Landscapes, the Drive-In Movie Theaters, and Gone?
SF: I think these motel sign pictures are related to the Western Landscape photographs of neon-lit motels and drive-in theater screens. The latter were made with color film and an 8" x 10" view camera whereas the square motel sign photographs were taken with a Hasselblad camera using 120mm film – by the way, I bought my Hasselblad, used, in 1970 and have made all the motel sign photographs with it.
LS: How did the book project come about? What was the process like?
SF: The Velvet Cell's publisher, a man named Eanna de Freine, contacted me about a year and a half ago asking if I would like to do a book of my motel sign pictures. I said, "Sure" and we worked on it for about a year over the internet. I have never met Eanna. I sent him about 60 image files and he made the selection of photographs although I did name a few that I definitely wanted to use. There are 32 photographs in the book. Eanna is, I believe, Irish and went to art school in London and now lives in Japan. The book was printed in Taiwan. He did the design and was at the press when it was printed. I think his design is simple but beautiful and the book is very well printed, probably partly because of his presence at the press. I am amazed that everything went smoothly and turned out as well as it did without either of us having ever met or been in the same space together!
LS: What’s next for you?
SF: What is next for me? I will continue to travel our highways and make pictures of motel signs. I am also working on a project making long, horizontal photographs of various vernacular subjects--including "homegrown" murals--that are compiled from a number of individual, digital frames. And I am beginning to make photographs using a drone to create "birds eye" views of various subjects, something my son, Luke is helping me with.
American Motel Signs: 1980-2008 by Steve Fitch was published in September 2016 in a Limited Edition of 500 copies. See more about the book here.