motel

7

So many photographers have been preoccupied with the road since the post-war period gave birth to car culture and the roadside as a staple of the American landscape. A number of the medium’s greats come to mind — people like Robert Frank, Ed Ruscha, Inge Morath, Lee FriedlanderStehpen ShoreJoel Sternfeld, and Alec Soth (to name just a few) — but one artist in particular stands out as the quintessential documentarian of the road: Jeff Brouws.

This is a photographer of the road for the road. So often America’s highways serve allegorically to represent personal and existential journeys, but with Brouws the focus is tighter — the coolness of the documentation reminiscent of the image of a crime. He examines the road not to build a narrative, but to record the remains of a story never adequately told, as though it was rewritten before the last chapter. 

For Brouws, it begins with the motel. The central theme of his work, what he refers to as “the myth of mobility,” is first spotted in the residue of motel culture that dots the contemporary roadside. You won’t find easy nostalgia here. On the contrary, the motel is offered as an artifact of an idealism that’s been replaced by the pragmatism of the storage unit

As he writes, “[The myth of mobility] alludes to the futility of our constant striving for success and achievement, while also metaphorically suggesting that the roads we travel (and infuse with so much meaning) may eventually lead nowhere — to a landscape where ‘the American Dream that isn’t quite what it seems’ resides.”

All Images by Jeff Brouws.

8

The motel room is unthinkable without a television screen. It would be impossible to lure someone into one of the loneliest places in the world without some promise of distraction (let’s not be so generous as to characterize it as entertainment). It’s no surprise, then, that motel signage insists on reminding would-be guests that rooms feature first COLOR TV, then CABLE TV, and finally FREE HBO.

Television is like a lifeline in the motel. Does anyone actually turn it off at night when travelling alone? I don’t. The white glow is too comforting, too hypnotizing, too much like the only evidence that there’s a world on the other side of the door.

The motel is born at the same time as the television, rising from the ramshackle cottage and auto courts to a mass-built, unified concept in the 1950s. If the early tourist camps were about family adventure, the motel came into its own as a place where one could be alone.

Post-war America is the time of the travelling salesman, the oppressive family home, and dreams of permanent mobility. Even if families still flocked to the motor court for vacation, its day-to-day customers were businessmen and couples with made up names who used the television to cut the silence in the room after an affair had been consummated.

Even if free WiFi is more valuable than television these days, the thought of a TV-free room remains terrifying. There are times when you don’t want infinite choice, when the limited channels provided, which are the same in every room, serve as a reminder that you’re not the only one in the midst of a journey.

There’s someone in another room going through the exact same motions as you — tired, bored, even mildly afraid. The collective anxiousness of being untethered is tempered by a sense of confinement. If the motel room is forced to serve as a makeshift womb, the television is the traveler’s umbilical cord.

Photos (in order) by Eric Cousinneau, Stephen Shore (x2), Bryan Schutmaat @bryanschutmaat, Valerie Chiang @ninebagatelles, Steffan Walter, Brendan Barry, and army.arch.

7

Gregory Crewdson is not a motel photographer — at least not in the sense of the subject’s key documentarians, artists like Stephen Shore and Jeff Brouws. And yet every one of his eerily lit, immaculately staged, and thoroughly haunting images references the just-out-of-sight mysteriousness that’s promised by the chain lock on a motor court’s door. 

Fans of the photographer’s work will know that he was intrigued and inspired by the psychoanalytic sessions his father conducted in the basement of his childhood home. The palpable sense that something hidden and forbidden underwrites the most familiar of spaces — from our bedrooms to our grocery stores — is at the core of Crewdson’s oeuvre. 

Thus the motel. It does on occasion make its appearance among the small-town homes of Pittsfield, Massachusetts that so fascinated him through the publication of Beneath the Roses, but in tender supply. Flipping through his most popular work to date, you’d almost miss the instances in which you’re looking at the room of an inn.

And that’s really the whole point. What Crewdson does more explicitly than any artist before him (with perhaps the exception of Edward Hopper) is to argue that the American home is just like a motel room, a site of profound banality and the most illicit secrets all at once. 

When Crewdson confronts the motel head-on, it’s with curtains and doors open. Like the holes in the floor of his living rooms, the hidden stories of everyday-America spill out with troubling intrigue and a touch of sadness. Why do we hide what we hide?

This country. This life. It’s an iceberg floating along the tenuous canals that we’ve carved out. But the underside continually runs against our artificial shores, scraping along the edges of propriety, shedding its lurking depths in dazzling displays across our periphery vision.

Pay attention.