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The Joy of Getting There – Steve Fitch on Vanishing Vernacular

photo-eye Gallery The Joy of Getting There
Steve Fitch on Vanishing Vernacular
In this interview, Gallery Associate Yoana Medrano speaks with Steve Fitch about publishing Vanishing Vernacular, his love of the road trip, and what's next for the artist in 2018.

Blue Swallow Motel, Hwy. 66, Tucumcari, New Mexico; July, 1990, Archival Pigment Print, 16x20" Image
Edition of 12 $2000  © Steve Fitch

If I were to take a vacation now, I imagine getting on a quick flight to start an adventure in some far off land. Today, I feel that we are far more focused on arriving at the destination then experiencing the journey of getting there. We peer down from oval airplane windows and watch as we speedily fly over so many cities and towns that we will never get to know as opposed to jumping into a vehicle and heading out onto the open road.  On the road, we might find a once-in a-lifetime place or perhaps new people who remind us of our biological need to be together. A road trip can pull us away from the fast-paced hustle and bustle or even away from our phones for just a moment. Both types of trips have their pros and cons, but the latter is quickly disappearing.

In Steve Fitch’s Vanishing Vernacular, he documents the disappearing structures and other architectural features that can be found along the two-lane highways of the West. I can imagine him pulling over at different spots that captured his attention – places originally meant to house a sleepy traveler, entertain the wildly bored, or capture the attention of all. I asked Steve to give us some insight into the process of publishing Vanishing Vernacular, as well as creating this body of work. 

Yoana Medrano: The staff at photo-eye Gallery were asked to pick a favorite photograph from the show. Do you have a favorite photograph from Vanishing Vernacular

Ft. Union Drive-In Theater, Las Vegas, New Mexico; July 12, 1982, Archival Pigment Print,16x20" Image, 
Edition of 12, $2000, © Steve Fitch 

Monolith, 2001- A Space Odyssey 
Steve Fitch:      Which is my favorite photograph in Vanishing Vernacular? Of course, that is a tough question to answer since I like so many of them. Maybe the photograph of the Fort Union Drive-in Theater in Las Vegas, New Mexico on page 31. I like the white rectangle of the screen, immobile and seemingly timeless, waiting to receive a projected image, in a beautiful, high plains landscape. It kind of reminds me of the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s movie, 2001—A Space Odyssey. I also enjoy the photograph on page 40 of a weathered plywood sign floating in the sky above a southwestern landscape with a semi truck and solitary butte. Or the photograph on page 81 of the neon AA Motel sign with an arrow pointing to “Modern”. What is modern? Phone booths used to be but not anymore. A train blurs by next to the highway in beautiful dusk light.

YM:     What was the process of having this book published in comparison to your previous book publications?

SF:      The process of publishing Vanishing Vernacular was similar in one important way to all the book projects that I have been involved with, including Diesels and Dinosaurs, in that it was collaborative. With Diesels and Dinosaurs, two fellow photographers, Roger Minick and Richard Misrach, were instrumental in choosing and sequencing the photographs. Marks in Place, Gone, and Island in the Sky were all published by university presses which means a different procedure has to be negotiated: faculty committees and administrative committees have to approve the book before it can be designed, sequenced and produced which is all done in house. With Gone, for example, I had a lot of contact with the two book designers at UNM Press and one of the editors came up with the book's title. With my book, American Motel Signs, which was published by The Velvet Cell, I worked with the designer and publisher, Eanna de Fréine, entirely through the Internet; I have never met or spoken to him but only communicated online. We both worked on the selection of photographs but he was mostly responsible for the final selection and sequencing as well as the design. Working on Vanishing Vernacular was great because the two people I worked most closely with (designer David Skolkin, and Joanna Hurley, the book packager and editor), both live in Santa Fe, so I could meet with them frequently. And Toby Jurovics, who wrote an essay in the book, is a good friend with whom over several years I had many conversations about the project.

AA Motel, Holdrege, Nebraska, May 22, 1981, Archival Pigment Ink Print, 16x20" Image, 
Edition of 12, $2000, © Steve Fitch  
YM:     Do you have any advice for people looking to get published?

SF:      Getting a book published can be an exciting and satisfying experience but also an aggravating and expensive one. Unless it is a labor of love, it might not be worth the trouble. There are many options, today, for a person wishing to publish a book of photographs so do some research and, if possible, discuss your project with someone who has knowledge about those options.

YM:     The sequencing of the book has a very specific flow to it. What was the thought process?

SF:      Vanishing Vernacular mostly includes color work that I did beginning in 1979 but there are a couple of black-and-white images from the early 1970s and one from 1969. The first thing I had to do was figure out what photographs—out of the thousands that I had made—to select and how they should be strung together in a book. I wanted the book to be about something and not just a retrospective. Gradually, the hundred plus photographs ended up in roughly five groups: views, signs, night and neon, drive-in theaters, and radio towers. I didn’t, however, want to configure the book as five distinct sections; I wanted a flow, not a narrative, exactly, but a sequence that would override the five groupings so that the whole book feels, somehow, organic. Hopefully, the book achieves that. Another decision was to not place the title or caption on the page with each photograph but instead to have them all at the back of the book as notes. This would allow for a more visual experience and also allow for more detailed captions.

Radio Tower Between Trujillo & Las Vegas, New Mexico, September 9, 2006, Archival Pigment Print, 16x20" Image, Edition of 12, $2000, © Steve Fitch
YM:     What is so appealing about the two-lane highway?

SF:      What is so appealing about the two-lane highway? When you get on the interstate you drive 600 miles or so, as quickly as possible, and get off and stay in a motel just like the one you stayed in the night before. There is not much excitement or discovery or variety along the way. On two-lane highways you can experience time and place and adventure since what happens along the way is as important as the actual arrival at a destination. You are on a journey, which the interstates or even jet travel, have basically eliminated. A journey occurs through real time—not compressed time—and space, and it has no guarantees. Two-lane highways are different from each other and they allow for exploration, even require it. They are the Blue Highways that William Least Heat Moon wrote about. And they are adorned with the variety of landmarks that I have taken great pleasure in photographing and which make up this book: nutty signs like the El Kapp in Raton, New Mexico or motels with sublime neon like the Blue Swallow on Route 66 in Tucumcari.

YM:     Can you talk a bit about how you started shooting hop kilns and how that was your first introduction into documenting the vernacular?

SF:      As I write in my essay in the book, it was on day trips with my mother as she travelled around Mendocino County in northern California to make paintings of what she found interesting, that I noticed hop kilns. I was five or six years old and hop kilns were common architectural features of the landscape, used to dry hops, which were a major crop of the region before they were replaced by wine grapes. My mother liked to make paintings of them and a dozen years later I began to photograph the remaining hop kilns—most were being torn down or were burning down. I found them interesting because they were these unique structures designed to do only one thing: dry hops for brewing beer and they were disappearing. They were not to be found everywhere but only in a few counties in California (and Oregon and Washington). This made them—by definition—vernacular architecture and I have been interested in “the vernacular” in its many forms ever since. I must admit, part of my love of vernacular architecture is that it is not usually designed by architects but—in the case of hop kilns— by the farmers who grow the hops, which leads to an interesting variety of designs. Like drive-in movie theaters they are a folk architecture that is reflective of purpose and place.

YM:      You started photographing with film; your newer work is digital and you’ve been working with a drone lately. How do you like the transition and which do you prefer?

SF:      The transition for me from film to digital was gradual and is not complete. In 2005, on a sabbatical from teaching, I began to learn Photoshop and to scan my negatives and make inkjet prints while at the same time still making darkroom prints from negatives. By 2006 I was no longer working in a darkroom at all, so the transition to digital—at least in terms of making prints—was relatively quick and easy. However, it wasn’t until 2008 when I was making photographs for the book, Sun, Sticks and Mud that I really began to shoot digitally. Around 2010 I began to make the long, horizontal images, four of which are in the Vanishing Veracular exhibition, which could not very easily have been constructed using film—they basically demand that I shoot with a digital camera. In 2010, I made my last image using film and an 8x10 view camera but I still occasionally make pictures on two-and-a-quarter size film, such as the square images of motel signs that are in the exhibition, and I plan to continue doing that. And I may make some more images with film and my 8x10 view camera, who knows?

Muleshoe, Texas; October 14, 2012, Archival Pigment Print, 10x61" Image, Edition of 7, $4000, ©S teve Fitch
YM:     What’s next for you?

SF:      What is next for me? I plan to continue creating the wide, horizontal view photographs of murals and facades that I construct from a number of digital frames. And what is really interesting me now is to use a drone to make bird’s eye views of various subjects—such as small towns like Vaughn, or Ft. Sumner—and to pair those views with ground level views made in the same towns. For this work I have been inspired by the many beautiful 19th-century bird’s eye view lithographs of towns and cities in the American West that were published in John W. Reps' book, Cities of the American West published by Princeton University Press in 1979, one of my favorite books.
– YM

Vanishing Vernacular is on view at photo-eye Gallery through May 19th, 2018, and we will be hosting a Book Singing event with Steve Fitch on Saturday, May 12th from 2–4PM.

For more information on Vanishing Vernacular, and to purchase prints or a copy of the monograph, please contact photo-eye Gallery Staff at:
505-988-5152 x202 or

All prices listed were current at the time this post was published.

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