A sort of reversal is always at work in the motel sign — its glaring neon belies the humble structure it announces — but there are certain cases in which the outlandishness factor verges on the otherworldly. Such is the peculiar preoccupation with space that can be spotted on the North American roadside.
Rocket ships, satellites, and flying saucers all grace motel signage (not to mention diners across the continent). This iconography is not the remainder of patriotic pride in the space race of the 1960s, at least not entirely.
You must shoot for the stars in the hopes of reaching your mark on the earth. One recalls the archer’s paradox: as much as you might want the sign to point at its target, to draw the traveler off the highway and into the parking lot, it must also point away from it in some capacity. The driver is not meant to look at the motel itself, but to be transfixed by the promise of the sign.
These markers thus quickly became figures of post-war American ambition, and there was nothing more ambitious than conquering space. Folded around the broad theme of travel, the space motel draws together many familiar registers: movement, exploration, colonization, and the fierce will to be free of obligation, shuttling as it were towards the outer atmosphere.
Few photographers understand how to shoot the motel. If there’s a formal rule that underwrites the work of the masters of the subject — people like Stephen Shore, Jeff Brouws, and Alec Soth — it would be that one must narrow the frame to include only the most crucial information.
A wide angle lens is rarely useful at the motor court. This is 35mm territory. Composition is a matter of elimination. The character of the place only reveals itself when you squint and are drawn to the subtle iconography of a room that’s been designed to be forgotten.
“With a painting, you’re taking basic building blocks and making something that’s more complex than what you started with,” Shore explains. “It is a synthetic process. A photograph does the opposite: it takes the world, and puts an order on it, simplifies it.”
Bryan Schutmaat understands this better than most. His series Western Frieze (2007-2008) is one of the best collections of motel photography produced in the last decade, one that captures the curious stillness of businesses down on their luck but still clinging to a nostalgic vision of the roadside.
Like the other names dropped above, the idea here isn’t to document the motel in and of itself, but rather as a representation of the wider context in which it is embedded — America at the crossroads, be it between past and present, rural and urban life, or merely success and failure.
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.”
Among the mixed bag of the motel’s clientele, one finds all sorts, but most of all people in the process: of getting a divorce, of getting a new job, of hooking up with someone, beings on the brink of, but who have not yet achieved their goal, nor decided upon what they want; individuals who do not waste their time in vain lamentations about past failures, nor in futile speculation about a glorious future, unstable and irresolute people who make their way in life without quite knowing where they are going or why they are going there… — Bruce Begout, Common Place: The American Motel.