|Arrow Motel, Highway 85, Espanola, New Mexico, March 23, 1982 -- Steve Fitch|
In 1971 Fitch earned a degree in Anthropology from The University of California in Berkley, and then in 1978 an MFA in photography from The University of New Mexico. In 1971, inspired by his family's road trips, Fitch began to explore the Western two-lane highway and make photographs – which he continues to do today. His images capture the essence of the classic American highway in neon, motel signs, drive-ins and roadside attractions. On the occasion of the Highway Culture exhibition at photo-eye Gallery, up through April 14th, I've asked Fitch to tell us more about his work. -- Anne Kelly
|Dinosaur, Highway 40, Vernal, Utah, 1974? -- Steve Fitch|
Steve Fitch: No question about it -- the trips I took with my family as a kid had a big influence on the photographs that I have made as an adult. Although I didn't realize it at the time, the photographs I was making that ended up in Diesels and Dinosaurs were very much an homage to the two lane highway and the kind of trips my family took when I was a kid. We would travel from northern California to the family farm in South Dakota where most of my relatives lived. We would stop at all these tourist places along the way (like snakepits, dinosaur parks and rock shops) and stay in funky, neon lit motels. The journey of getting to South Dakota was as important as actually getting there. Today, with interstate highways and jet travel, the journey has been diminished. Flying on a jet somewhere is more like an amusement park ride than a journey. With my photography I have been interested in the "vernacular of the journey" ever since the first pictures in Diesels and Dinosaurs.
|Steven Fitch photographing -- images by Rick Dingus|
SF: No, I don't think that I ever took photographs on these trips. I started making photographs when I was in junior high school but by then I wasn't traveling so much with my parents. But my father did take photographs. He was a serious amateur photographer who made a lot of 35mm Kodachrome slides (many of which I have today). In fact, in Diesels and Dinosaurs there is a black & white reproduction of one of his slides in my introductory essay. I have a vivid memory of one night when we were pulling into a small, desert town after a thunderstorm, The streets were wet and there were a ton of neon reflections bouncing off of the pavement. One time many years later I was going through my fathers slides and I found one taken at night in Wells, Nevada that I swear was a photograph that matched my memory. That was incredible to me: finding an actual color photograph of a memory!
|Drive-in theater, Dalhart, Texas, 1974 -- Steve Fitch|
|Steve Fitch shooting in 1982 -- photograph by Rick Dingus|
AK: In 2012 your images inspire nostalgia. You had mentioned in a recent radio interview with Mary-Charlotte on KSFR that when you were making the images you did not have nostalgia in mind, you were just recording the world around you. However, it seems that your road trips were a bit like the childhood trips that you reminisce about – only you are the driver. In a sense perhaps there is a bit of nostalgia involved on a subconscious level?
SF: Nostalgia is a tricky word: it implies a longing for, or romanticizing of, something in the past. With photography you can't make pictures of things in the past because your subject exists in the present, right in front of you. That has been the case with the things that I have photographed whether they are neon signs or drive-in movie theaters. Drive-in movie theaters were in full swing when I started to make pictures of them in the early 1970s. Having said that, I now look at many o the photographs that I have made over the years and it is obvious that much of what I have photographed is gone or in ruins (such as the drive-ins of pre-franschise neon motel signs). So I do think I had some kind of subconscious premonition that things were going to change; I think that my photographic interests have always been driven, to some extent, by an eye towards history. It is as if I had a sixth sense that what I was making pictures of was going to disappear and that what I was doing was important.
|Motel, Highway 66, Elk City, Oklahoma, 1974? -- Steve Fitch|
SF: There are so many stories it is hard to know where to begin. In 1972 after I had been making pictures along the highway for about a year I reflected upon all the pictures that I had made so far and realized that something was missing. I had photographed tourists, truckstops, motels, billboards, truckdrivers and waitresses, snakepits and dinosaurs but some crucial aspect of the American highway was missing. It dawned on me that I needed to make some photographs at night. So much of the experience of travelling our highways had to do with driving at night, listening to funky AM radio stations and pulling into towns that you could see coming twenty miles away because of all the neon. So, on the next highway trip that I took I decided to try making some photographs at night--something that I was not even sure was possible. In Deadwood, South Dakota I spotted a homely little motel at dusk, with a row of bare light bulbs and a neon sign. Through the window I could see a neon rimmed clock. Over the next hour, as it got dark, I shot a roll and a half of 120 film, bracketing my exposures. Two weeks later, back in Berkeley, I developed the film and was excited. The photographs of that motel looked great! I picked one to print and it is in Diesels and Dinosaurs. I love the quality of light at dusk and in this photograph the clock visible through the window tells me what time the photograph was made (8:20), and the second hand is blurred for about a second so it also tells me how long the exposure was. Ever since I have been very fond of photographs with clocks in them!
|Near Trujillo, New Mexico, September 9, 2006? -- Steve Fitch|
SF: The radio towers were made on the Llano Estacado region of western Texas and eastern New Mexico. I was working with five other photographers photographing that region as part of a survey project partly funded by the Southwest Collection at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. For years I had noticed radio towers out on the Llano because the region is so flat that anything that sticks up into the sky really stands out. I had been wanting to make a photograph of one at dusk for sometime; in the summer of 2004 the chance presented itself outside Levelland, Texas. In the picture that I made (which is about an eight minute exposure) there is the tower exactly in the center of the frame surrounded by a field of oil pumpjacks, some blurred from moving up and down, others not moving. The sky is dramatic with a parade of big, Great Plain's storm clouds. The next day I found out that the storm clouds flooded counties north of where I was and that several tornados touched down. Today, I look at that image and am surprised that I was even able to make it--if it is very windy I an unable to make the tower pictures because of the camera shaking during long exposures. The photograph is included in the book Llano Estacado: Island in the Sky published by Texas Tech University Press.
View Steve Fitch's portfolios at photo-eye Gallery here
Special thanks to Rick Dingus, who provided us with the images of Fitch making his photographs. Dingus' work is featured along with Fitch's in Llano Estacado.
For more information about Steve Fitch's work, please contact photo-eye Gallery Associate Director Anne Kelly by email or by calling the gallery at (505) 988-5152 x202