Time was that roadside America didn’t look as homogenous as it does now. Make a stop today in your fuel-efficient car along any Interstate highway and you’re at a place-less Exitville — a clump of national-brand gas stations, hotels and fast food eateries no different from the next Exitville.
But the pre-Interstate American roadside was all about defining place. Striving businesses owners often turned to whimsical attention-getting signs and fanciful architectural flourishes to attract passing motor tourists.
Two-lane highways were dotted with coffee shops shaped as coffee pots and Sno-cone stands as giant Sno-cones. Regionalism reigned and proprietors leveraged what was local. A West Texas motel flashed a towering sign green in the shape of a cactus. A Wisconsin cheese shop sported a giant stature of a mouse with a cheese.
John Margolies loved it all. Margolies, who died in 2016 at the age of 76, was widely acknowledged as the nation’s foremost photographer of American roadside vernacular architecture. Over the course of nearly four decades he traveled more than 100,000 miles of more than 11,710 color slides.
And without his dogged pursuit to photographically catalog the drive-in movie theater, hot dog stands, mini-golf courses, log cabin motels and Sputnik age gas stations, there might not be any visual documentation of many of the whimsically designed businesses. Many of the buildings Margolies captured no longer exist.
“It’s a record of American commerce that no longer exists,” Margolies told a Forbes reporter in 2011, shortly after the Library of Congress acquired his archive. “The mom and pop shops were killed by box stores and the internet.”
Born in 1940 in Connecticut, as a child Margolies was frustrated on road trips when his parents refused to stop at playfully-styled eateries and attractions.
“My parents’ generation thought it was the ugliest stuff in the world,” Margolies told the Washington Post in 2015: I liked places where everything was screaming for attention: ‘Look at me. Look at me.’”
Margolies studied art history and journalism at the University of Pennsylvania, after which he became an editor at Architectural Record magazine and also served as a program director at the Architectural League of New York — both storied establishments regarded as arbiters of architectural excellence.
It’s curious then that given his career at such august institutions, Margolies devoted his off-time to documenting what the architectural elite dismissed as kitsch. (And even more curious that many of Margolies’s photo trips were supported by the architect Philip Johnson, the legendary modernist.)
Margolies dismissed criticisms that the buildings and signage on which he trained his lens were tacky.
“Tacky isn’t necessarily better or worse than any other kind of taste, although many people would care to disagree with that,” he said.
By the early 1970s, Margolies established what would become his singular research method: “I would pick out a region of the country and with the largest rental car possible, I’d pick up AAA maps and go places I’d never been before.”
Margolies used a 35-mm color film camera, adopting a visual strategy from which he never wavered. Devoid of people and vehicles he captured icons of mom-and-pop commerce against a radiant cloudless blue sky. Sometimes, he’d wait for hours for the right conditions: “I insisted there would be no cars, no people, and no litter and that the sun had to be out.”
Such a compositional strategy produced images that now read almost as abstractions — buildings and signs distilled to simple forms and iconic lines. And Margolies’s methodology resulted in photographs that are remarkably free of irony and cynicism. Likewise they lack a groupie’s idealization and or a romantic’s nostalgia.
Margolies published four richly-illustrated books: “Pump and Circumstance: Glory Days of the Gas Station” (1993); “Home Away From Home: Motels in America” (1995); “Fun Along the Road: American Tourist Attractions” (1998); and “John Margolies: Roadside America” (2010).
In June 2017, the Library of Congress released more than 11,700 digitized images, all of which — per Margolies wishes — are in the public domain, free for everyone to use and reuse.
The Library’s John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive is easily searchable — and endlessly fascinating.
All images: John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.