What is: Shiprock Park, Richmond, VA

What was: Replacing locks built in 1816, the great lock was constructed in the 1850s. It is the lowest point that connects the James River with the Richmond Dock, completing the James River and Kanawha Canal system that bypassed seven miles of falls. The Great Ship Lock connected the navigable part of the James River with the Richmond city dock, which extended for ten blocks to the west. Ocean-going vessels were raised up from sea level to the level of the city dock which accommodated ships as large as 180 feet long by 35 feet wide.

Originally, George Washington was searching for a way to open a water route to the West. He believed that was the key to helping Virginia become an economic powerhouse in what would emerge as the United States. He surveyed and planned the original canal system to bypass the rocky rapids of the James River, intending for it to stretch all the way west to the Ohio River Valley. It only made it as far as Botetourt County in western Virginia, about 197 miles through Virginia’s western mountain ranges. The James River and Kanawha Canal was the most ambitious public works and engineering project in Virginia during the 19th century.

This canal served as an important transport hub for the tobacco, flour, wheat, fish, oats. Lime, coal and shingles. Flat-bottomed boats floated down the James to Richmond laden with tobacco, hogsheads and returned with French and English imports, furniture, dishes, and clothing.

After the American Civil War, funds for resuming construction were unavailable from either the war-torn Commonwealth or private sources and the project did poorly against railroad competition.The Railroads had emerged as a more efficient form of transportation, midway in the canal’s construction and ultimately the canal’s towpath became the roadbed for the Richmond and Allegheny Railroad, following the same course.

What is: the fenced in pool in the middle of the motel parking lot. Vegetation growing through the concrete. Santa Rosa, New Mexico

What was: In the 1930’s, hotels began having pools built as marketing tools. The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida was one of the first and certainly one of the most historic in the United States to add a pool. As motels emerged to serve the American traveling public after WWII, pools became one of the added bonuses, to lure and attract customers.

By the 1950s and 1960s, the pinnacle of the motel industry in the United States, older mom-and-pop motor hotels added newer amenities such as swimming pools or color TV (a luxury in the 1960s). The main roads into major towns became a sea of orange or red neon proclaiming VACANCY (and later COLOR TV, air conditioning, or a swimming pool) seeking precious visibility on crowded highways.

In 1951, Memphis residential developer Kemmons Wilson, after being disillusioned with the wide variations of quality of motels during a family vacation, built the Holiday Inn chain – based on a standardized experience across the country that would include TV, air conditioning, a restaurant, and a pool.

What is: the Glenrio ghost town straddles the New Mexico-Texas border. This gas station, motel and cafe had a sign facing each direction…it was either the first in texas, or the last depending on the travels along Route 66. The old Route 66 roadbed runs through the Glenrio Historic District which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

What was: In 1901 the railway came through this area of Texas/New Mexico and the small town of Glenrio was born. The train arrived on the Texas side of the town. The post office was established on the New Mexico side. The Texas side was in a dry county. The gasoline taxes were cheaper on the New Mexico side. By 1905 the area was opened up to small farmers. By 1920, Glenrio had a hotel, a hardware store, and a land office, as well as several grocery stores, service stations, and cafes. By 1940 the population of the town was 30 people.

With the advent of Route 66 Glenrio became a popular stopping place for travelers and a “welcome station” station was built near the state line. One former resident recalls constant traffic during the daytime, with cars lined up five or six in a row waiting to get gas. Last in/first in was owned and built by Homer Ehresman, and his family ran the business between 1953 and 1976. With the advent of Interstate 40, bypassing the town, it became a ghost town.

What is: Family owned, with era restored rooms, 1940s phones that work, a garage attached to your room and amazing neon in the courtyard and signs, the Blue Swallow is a gorgeous and pleasant step back. Guests enjoy a reminder of what it was like to travel across the USA in the “good old days.” Still today, the experience includes sitting out with your neighbors under the warm glow of the neon, or sharing travel stories around a campfire. With hospitality provided by owners (formerly Nancy and Kevin) you will be welcomed like family.

What was: The Blue Swallow has been serving travelers along the Mother Road since 1940. Originally called The Blue Swallow Court it was open and operating with ten rooms. The motel has an L-shaped plan and consists of 12 units with a centrally-located office and manager’s residence. With its pink stucco walls decorated with shell designs and a stepped parapet, the façade reflects a modest use of the Southwest Vernacular style of architecture.

Lillian Redman and her husband bought the Blue Swallow in 1950 and successfully operated it until the 1990s, modernizing it with new, larger neon sign, and using the more up-to-date term, “Motel”. From the start, the Redmans put their customers first. When guests didn’t have enough money for a room, the Redmans accepted personal belongings in trade. She described the special and close connection she had with the Route 66 motorists who came in each night, “I end up traveling the highway in my heart with whoever stops here for the night.”

At the end of the 1960s, Interstate 40, took the place of the old Route 66. When I-40 highway came in, Mrs. Redman said, “I felt just like I had lost an old friend. ” Source and Visit them at Blueswallowmotel.com #motel #route66 #BlueSwallowmotel #neon #sign #travel #familybusiness

What is: the signature orange roof but the weather vane is gone and the building is overgrown by vines. Could be anywhere in the USA. This one is at the interchange of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park.

What was: The weather vanes on Howard Johnson orange roof helped patrons immediately identify the Howard Johnson’s restaurants and motels. Howard Johnson’s was a pioneer of franchising and the nationwide roadside restaurant, replicating everything from its look to its menus. At its zenith, Howard Johnson’s operated more than 1,000 restaurants.

Howard Deering Johnson opened a drugstore and found the soda fountain was a money maker. He soon found a recipe for great ice cream and created his famous and popular 28 flavors of ice cream. That led to beach stands and ultimately to a restaurant serving clams. The second restaurant was franchised making it one of America’s first franchising agreements.

As America entered WW II there were 200 Howard Johnson’s restaurants. Due to the impact of the war, by 1944, there were only 12 Howard Johnson’s restaurants. Johnson bid for and won exclusive rights to serve drivers at service station turnoffs on the newly built turnpike systems in the 1940s and by 1954, there were 400 Howard Johnson’s restaurants in 32 states.

Howard Johnson’s went public in 1961. By 1975, Howard Johnson’s company had more than 1,000 restaurants in 42 states and Canada. By the late 1970s the decline began, partially because of the oil embargo of 1974,which resulted in reduced travel by car, as well as changing competitive marketplace.

What is: an abandoned cotton gin between Clarksdale and Friars Point, MS.

What was: Founded in the 1830s and continuing to operate into the 20th century, the King and Anderson Plantation was an enormous spread of seventeen thousand acres just northwest of Clarksdale and reputed to be the largest family plantation in Mississippi. Originally, large plantations had their own private cotton gins. Over time, the increasing number of smaller farms, the emergence of sharecropping after the civil war and new technologies led to the rise of public gins.

By the early twentieth century, large, public facilities that not only ginned cotton but also sold seeds to cottonseed oil firms, populated nearly every town and county in the state’s cotton belt. In addition to the economic function, public gins served a social function. “Trips to the gin provided farmers living in the far reaches of Mississippi’s counties with breaks in the tedium and solitude of toiling on small, isolated farms. The same gins served black and white farmers, and gin operators made no efforts to serve whites before blacks. While waiting in line to gin their cotton, farmers of both races came together to discuss pests, weather patterns, and prices. As shared public spaces, therefore, gins offered brief respites from the stifling confines of Mississippi’s racial caste system.” Source: https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/cotton-gins/.

Consider making photo books where the images speak and relate to each other,

holding hands to make a work that is greater in impact than the individual parts.” . Harvey Benge

Thoughts about Photo Books

Today, most photography is consumed on our phones and computers.  Shared on social media, scrolling and scrolling as the images go by, liking and commenting here and there.  Digital consumption of photography makes for broad distribution for the photographer and gives viewers lots to look at and enjoy.  However, viewing a photograph in print is a different experience.

One form of a print photograph is obviously the print – owned or viewed at an art gallery and on museum walls.  Another form of print is the photobook, more often owned. Like a print, the photobook is an object you can hold in your hand.  Unlike a single or couple of prints on a wall, photobooks include numerous images sequenced and laid out in a manner that brings meaning to the series as a whole. The composition of the photobook is not simply about the rectangular framing of a single image, rather it is about the series, the sequence and the overall narrative.

Walker Evans suggested that “he could create a sequence of pictures that could become in and of itself a work of art,” Sarah Hermanson Meister, Curator of Photographs at MOMA has noted.  “It’s not just that each individual picture was great or actually described its purported subject. But without any knowledge of narrative or chronological structure, he was creating the photo book as a work of art. That laid the groundwork for the whole artistic potential of what the photo book became in the 20th century.”

Some photobooks are simply images. Some photobooks include text.  Others include materials that contextualize the pictures, such as correspondence, diary/journal entries, maps or illustrations.  Some photobooks include design features that enhance the experience and materiality of the book.  However, what is especially interesting across all of these formats is that a single photograph may tell a story, but a series of photographs brought together in a book offers a more complex and complete narrative. The cover design, image sequencing, accompanying text, and the pages themselves come together to play supporting roles. The books can rise to the level of art themselves, and art that that you can hold in your hand or leave on a coffee table, accessible to you and others to flip through and enjoy — sometimes seeing new things each time.

In fact, today the photobook is not just art, it is considered collectible art. Like all art, some collectors of photobooks base decisions on personal taste, knowledge or interest in an artist or specific subject matter.  Others choose to collect based on artists but also with a view to rarity and seeking vintage first editions.  Collectors are willing to pay steep prices for the world’s finest photography books, including: Ansel Adam’s Sierra Nevada; Walker Evan’s Let us now Praise Famous Men; Robert Frank’s The Americans; and, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment. For a primer on factors for consideration when collecting photobooks, check out this article.

The photobook has also become a way for photographers to disseminate their work to a broader audience than a single print can reach, while also serving as a way to tell a longer-form story about a project they have been working on.

If you want to explore photobooks by photographers of our time, check out: Radius Books, ApertureSteidlPhaidon, and Dewi Lewis Publishing. For reviews of some recent photobooks and a further understanding of the form, function and overall understanding check out The Conscientious Photography Magazine.

The more I study photography, the more it seems clear — photobooks are the optimal format. 

Portable, shareable, permanent.

An intimate experience you can loan to your friends. And, unlike digital, print lasts. — Andy Adams, online Flak Photo Community 

Behind the Scenes: Making a Book
A couple months ago a reviewer of my Roadside America portfolio of 15 images suggested I take those 15 images back up to roughly 40 images — the size of a book.  It would prove to be a good experience in terms of editing and sequencing and offering a new way to look at the photographs, as a whole, as well as individually.  Out of that came new ways to see the different ways the images connect with each other.

While Robert Frank’s 84 page book, The Americans, was a result of editing and sequencing from 27,000 photographs, my little project edited just a thousand images down to about 100 and from that, a book of 51 images.

The Process: At first, I went back to the raw material to see what I thought might build upon the portfolio of 15 images.  As I identified those photographs, I made 4’’x 6’’ prints and then laid them out, mixing and matching sequences (see photo above).  As I played with which images and sequences might work, I gradually settled in on a “master narrative” or what you might call the topics and chapters/sections of the book.  Once that was settled (although the sequence of the chapters changed another couple times), I then reorganized photos and choices of photos in each section. I would often let the changes sit for a few days in order to digest the individual image placements, as well as the overall flow of the the sections and story. Of course, that would inevitably lead to more changes of both the images and the sequencing.  I would go back and add, delete, rearrange the images all over again. Several months of this went by and I finally got to the point where I was no longer shuffling images around. The story was complete and images worked separately and together to do what I wanted.

Here’s a tip about all that editing and sequencing, in case you get the book (details below).  The images are arranged as if you are on a road trip, coming into and going out of a town.  Each “chapter” is about key elements in any community – the economy, transportation & distribution, travel, commerce, social and home.

The next steps were easier.  I organized the photo files on the computer in the order I had settled on (photo below) and uploaded them to Blurb – an online self-publishing service that also includes a store front.  I printed a couple proofs to see the book in reality.  I made some additional changes to end up with what you can see today.

While Blurb is not the stature of the publishers I mentioned above, and there is no curator writing an introduction/essay or any assistance for wonderful design or typography, and it is mass produced, but it is nice to complete the project and have a book to hold in your hands and flip through.  A good experience and a fun first effort.

Preview or purchase at Blurb

Roadside America, In Black and White Infrared

If you are interested in previewing and/or purchasing the Roadside America book, you can visit Blurb.  It is also available as an instant pdf download if you would prefer that.

Limited Edition of the Book: I am also printing a limited edition run of 15 signed copies of the book with a premium archival paper.  You can email me if you are interested in that.

Additional Roadside America photographs are available on the website: https://binhammerphotographs.com/galleries

Prints from the Book: The images in this book are available as limited edition prints by emailing me directly.  They are not all on the website.

 

“Across the USA I have photographed with these ideas in mind: to portray Americans as they live at present. Their every day and their Sunday, their realism and their dream. The look of their cities, towns and highways”  — Robert Frank, application for renewal of Guggenheim Fellowship, 1956

The modern American road trip began to take shape in the late 1930s and into the 1940s, ushering in an era of a nation on the move.  After 1945, postwar prosperity, mass consumption, paid vacation leaves, the development of new highways, followed by the interstate highway system, combined with the rapid growth of automobile ownership resulted in a growing number of family vacations on the road.  Families traveled across the country, or at least out of state, to vacation, visit relatives or old friends in an increasingly mobile society.  Road trips became a chance for children to learn about America – its’ big and diverse landscape, its’ history, national parks and monuments.  Travel by car also created businesses to cater to Americans on the road, such as: gas stations; motels; campgrounds; diners; amusement parks and gift shops. The “road trip” was something uniquely American.

Photographs of the vacations filled family photo albums.  Photography also gave us postcards to share these family adventures. The American road trip was the subject and incubator for literature, music, film and photography.  It came to represent a sense of possibility and freedom, discovery and escape – a place to get lost and a way to find yourself.  For the arts, road trips represented both a way to discover the nation and to illuminate who and what we are.  The American Road trip became a staple of American photography as photographers sought to portray and/or better understand the vast land and the people in it – photographs were a way to look at, capture and show America’s character.

There are famous prints and photography books of personal travel, landscapes and landmarks. Robert Frank’s The Americans examined and critiqued America through images that challenged and found beauty in simple and often overlooked corners of the country.  Walker Evan’s documented and distilled America to its essence using cultural artifacts and Americans in their social context in his book American photographs. Stephen Shore found beauty in the mundane and explored the changing culture of America.  He documented everything from fast food meals to Cadillac cars, diners to dive bars, billboards to dashboards.  He and William Eggleston created a visual encyclopedia in color of what we consider modern America. Danny Lyon’s body of work on the Bikeriders speaks to the freedom of the open road while also documenting groups on the fringe of society.

Photographers have pursued that great American road trip with purpose of nostalgia, social commentary and to explore the perspectives about the truth of the nation — its values and the lives lived in the context of the “American Dream.” The road trips by photographers, as David Campany notes, force us to “confront the clichés in our heads and the clichés out there in order to bring a new perspective to both the past and present.”

“What should happen at the end of a road trip? A return to the status quo? A revolutionary new beginning? A few minor adjustments to one’s outlook? Obviously, it is not enough to drive West and arrive in the Promised Land” —David Campany, “A Short History of the Long Road”

A simple spot by the road

Fueling American road trips

Usually, at this time of the year I am on the road and off to visit Santa Fe. The pandemic has screwed that up for me this year.  On the other hand, there is speculation that as we emerge from the pandemic, road trips may, at least for a while, be the kind of vacations Americans seek out again. As I looked at some road trip images, it occurred to me you can’t do a road trip without gasoline.  We often take gas stations for granted.  They are like a utility; we don’t think about them. In fact, gas stations represent and underpin America’s mobility and car culture. As part of exploring the roots of political, economic and social histories, I learned that gas stations speak to elements of architectural design through the years, pop culture, corporate standardization/branding, changes in the economy and business.  They also are representative of changes in service for customers – from staff to fill the tank and clean your windshield to self-service; the addition of full-service garages to becoming convenience stores; offering branded maps and bathrooms to the addition of diners.

A Simple Spot, Phillips 66 in Adrian TX: The 1920s Phillips station (pictured above), originally called Knox’s was located in Vega,Texas on Route 66.  It was moved to the town of Adrian,Texas, known as the midpoint of Route 66. It apparently awaits its turn at restoration. The owners, who also own the Bent Door Cafe next door, are rumored to be thinking about turning it into a souvenir shop.

From the First Gas Station Onwards: In early 1900, gasoline was sold in open containers at pharmacies, blacksmith shops, hardware stores and other retailers looking to make a few extra dollars of profit.  The locale of the world’s first purpose-built gas station is debated.  Some suggest it was constructed in 1905 in St. Louis, Missouri.  Others point to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1913 when an architect designed a pagoda-style brick facility that was a complete drive in operation.  Unlike earlier simple curbside gasoline filling stations, this station in Pittsburgh not only served to fill cars with gasoline, it also offered free air, water, crankcase service and tire and tube installation.

For the past 100 years gas stations have occupied prime locations along main streets, suburban corners, on small town roads and highways.  They are one of America’s most commercial building types and over the years have gone through various architectural design iterations.

In the 1920s many gas stations were being built in prominent locations.  Due to local complaints, the gas station took on the look of cottages/houses, as opposed to an earlier shack look.  Tudor and English cottage designs with arched doorways and steeply pitched roofs became a common look.  The design also became a sign of growing competition.  Pure Oil favored English Cottage stations, while Standard Oil went for the Colonial revival design.  Gas stations were designed to attract attention and lure customers – all part of the corporate branding.  Over the years, the design characteristic of gas stations would change from cottages to a stylized box designs, often blending Art Moderne and international style motifs. Many of these featured glossy white exteriors and scientifically designed lighting schemes to attract attention. The box style stations also featured additional space for automobile service and repairs and expanded areas to sell batteries and other auto accessories.  These would eventually morph into full-fledged “convenience” stores.

The Business of Gas Stations: The advent of the Interstate highway network routed traffic away from the once-thriving, often family owned, gas stations, that sprinkled the countryside.  Today, many of these family owned businesses are located on secondary roads and falling into disrepair.  In 1969, there were 236,000 gas stations.  By 2016, there were 111,000 retail gas stations locations in the U.S. The number of gas stations has been declining due, in part, to increased competition, stricter environmental regulations, and shrinking gasoline profit margins

 

Explore Roadside America with me

More than gas stations, exploring roadside America can lead you to family owned motels, unique signs, communities, businesses and economies that have been lost to time and the changes to the world we live in.  If you want a visual trip through different parts of America, beyond the curated selection in the Website galleries, feel free to gander though some of the material I work with at the links below.  These images are the first-edits of the raw material.  You can check them out, based on locations, at these links:

Outer Banks
Virginia road trips
The Blue Ridge Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains
Route 66 trips
Mississippi
Great Smoky Mountains
Wyoming and Montana and a Rocky Mountain road trip
Texas

You can also find my most current Roadside images, with their detailed stories, in the Roadside America Photo series on Instagram.  Click the image for the complete story line.

This post is from a recent email newsletter, if you want to sign up for future newsletters, here is the link.  Of course, if there is something that catches your eye, I can always print it and make it a small batch limited edition.  All you have to do is use the contact page information and I’ll work with you to find and print the image you love.

Along the backroads of America are instances of human efforts serving as reminders that along today’s roadsides there are opportunities to pause, reflect and wonder about the people who settled once empty lands and the vibrant communities that were once part of the roadside