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Interview: Steve Fitch on American Motel Signs

photo-eye Gallery Interview: Steve Fitch on American Motel Signs Steve Fitch speaks to photo-eye Gallery about his inspirations and intentions for American Motel Signs series. photo-eye welcomes Fitch to our Bookstore Project Space Saturday December 10th, from 3–5pm for an Exhibition Opening & Book Signing for American Motel Signs.

In American Motel Signs Steve Fitch crisscrossed the United States documenting the colorful advertisements inviting weary travelers to park their car and pack it in for the night. Tinged with nostalgia, these delightfully garish motel signs lovingly recall a mid 20th Century road culture speaking to a sense of independence and freedom central to the contemporary American identity.

A trained anthropologist, Fitch’s approach to American Motel Signs is almost scientific. Images of a single subject are crafted with and observational distance and a democratic square frame inviting viewers to compare regional differences in detail, design, and landscape under the umbrella of a single society seemingly focused on fun, travel, and leisure.  For Fitch, much of his photographic work was inspired by childhood family road trips from Northern California to South Dakota and continues to focus on what the artist has termed the ‘vernacular of the journey’. photo-eye Gallery Associate Lucas Shaffer spoke with Fitch about the practice and process behind American Motel Signs.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado, December, 1981 – © Steve Fitch, Archival Pigment Print, 12 x 12", $450

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.

(Read Anne Kelly's 2012 interview with Fitch about his inspirations, and thoughts on highway culture)

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.

Cherokee, North Carolina; August, 1982 –  © Steve Fitch, Archival Pigment Print, 12x12", $450

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.

Christmas, Michigan; May, 1989 – © Steve Fitch, Archival Pigment Print, 12x12", $450

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.

American Motel Signs: 1980–2008, Steve Fitch, Published by The Velvet Cell, London

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.

Steve Fitch in his Studio
Steve Fitch is an American photographer born in 1949. He earned an MFA from the University New Mexico in 1978, and has taught photography at UC Berkeley, the University of Colorado in Boulder, Princeton University, and since 1990, at the College of Santa Fe. Fitch's photographs are included in the permanent collections of such museums as the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and The Chicago Art Institute.

Fitch will be present to sign copies of his latest monograph American Motel Signs 1980–2008 at our Bookstore Project Space for an Exhibition Opening and Book Signing from 3 – 5pm on Saturday, December 10th. In celebration, a selection of works from the American Motel Signs series will be installed in the Project space through February 18th, 2017.

For more information and to purchase prints please contact gallery staff at 505.988.5152 x 202.