In Photos: American Motel Signs
Time travel may not be possible, but remnants of the past remain in corners of the world.
Modern travelers typically plan out their accommodations in advance, but these photographs show that once upon a time all you needed to do was look for a sign along the road declaring “VACANCY,” and maybe listing an amenity or two—like a color TV and air conditioning!
Steve Fitch, a photographer and anthropologist, has been photographing roadside motel signs since the late 1970s. He was inspired by road trips his family took when he was young, between Northern California and South Dakota.
The photographs, all taken in the same square composition, depict more than signs but rather unique highway sculptures of a lost era. While back in the 1970s there was no nostalgia for neon motel signs, Fitch says, “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.”
Part of the realized nostalgia of these signs is the change in road culture: Fitch notes that there are now standard signs made by corporate-owned motels that create an unexciting monotony along the highway. But the old signs all stand out independently of one another, representing a sense of freedom and the spontaneity of road trips. From a wrapped gift at the Christmas Motel to an elaborate stagecoach at the Butterfield Stage Motel, the designs are matched to their locations.
Prints from the book are exhibited at Photo-Eye Bookstore Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, through February 18. And Fitch's book, “American Motel Signs,” is available to purchase online.