Pho­tog­ra­pher John Mar­golies’s ‘Road­side Amer­ica’ cap­tures a by­gone era of neon and chrome

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY RE­BECCA POW­ERS | Spe­cial to The Washington Post

John Mar­golies clearly re­calls his boy­hood affin­ity for the kalei­do­scopic blur slip­ping past the win­dow as he rode in the fam­ily car. ¶ “From the time I was a kid, when you drove from south­east Con­necti­cut to Bos­ton, you had a strip called the Ber­lin Turn­pike, which would turn into 45mph traf­fic lights and gaswar gas sta­tions, mo­tels and minia­ture golf cour­ses and drivein movie the­aters and all of that sort of stuff,” he says. ¶ “My par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion thought it was the ugli­est stuff in the world. I liked places where ev­ery­thing was scream­ing for at­ten­tion: ‘Look at me. Look at me.’ ” ¶ Mar­golies, now 75, did more than look. He re­mem­bered. And decades later, he set out to record the pass­ing scenery that was quickly pass­ing away. ¶ In ad­di­tion to hav­ing a keen eye, the young Mar­goBY lies had a “score­board men­tal­ity.” At 13, dur­ing a road trip to Or­ange Beach, Ala., he made a list of ev­ery ga­so­line brand along the way. ¶ “It was a long list,” he says. “There were a lot of gassta­tion brands in 1953. I love lists.” ¶ Af­ter col­lege, grad­u­ate school and a few years in Los An­ge­les, Mar­golies re­turned to the East Coast— and his boy­hood vo­ca­tion — and be­gan pho­tograph­ing mo­mand­pop Amer­ica. The vis­ual vault he ac­cu­mu­lated is now on ex­hibit as “Road­side Amer­ica: Through the Lens of John Mar­golies” at the Henry Ford Mu­seum in Dear­born, Mich., through Jan­uary. The ex­hibit draws from some 1,500 Mar­golies slides ac­quired by the mu­seum last year: In ad­di­tion to prints of retro signs and build­ings, it in­cludes vintage pen­nants, road maps, donot­dis­turb signs and other travel ephemera.

Marc Greuther, the Henry Ford’s chief cu­ra­tor, says mu­se­ums ben­e­fit from peo­ple such as Mar­golies, “sin­gle-minded in­di­vid­u­als with a laser-guided in­ter­est.”

Mar­golies’s work is in­deed sharply fo­cused — a happy mono­ma­nia.

Over the course of three decades be­gin­ning in the ’70s, he tra­versed 100,000 miles in his quest to doc­u­ment man-made scenery. Us­ing a Canon FT 35-mm film cam­era, he pho­tographed icons of com­merce, al­ways against a ra­di­ant sky with no peo­ple or ve­hi­cles in the frame to date the im­age. That method­ol­ogy pro­duced an al­most ab­stract ren­der­ing.

“What strikes me about many,” Greuther says, “is that even with pock­marks, bullet holes and bro­ken neon, [the signs are] still vi­brant, with a bal­ly­hoo, im­pre­sario qual­ity sur­viv­ing their di­sheveled state.”

Greuther says Mar­golies recorded a style that was truly mod­ern, “all boomerangs and satel­lites and spikes. They don’t seem sad­dled with [his­tor­i­cal] ref­er­ences.”

Those re­tail graph­ics, free of cyn­i­cism and irony and set against azure hori­zons, give the ex­hibit a cheery aura, like the ebul­lience of hit­ting the road.

When Mar­golies him­self hit the road, it was in the largest, most com­fort­able rental car he could af­ford, the ex­hibit’s welcome video says. He trav­eled alone, with one ex­cep­tion.

“I once had a friend with me and she lasted about five days, and she took a bus back home, be­cause ev­ery de­ci­sion has to do with me, me, me and me,” Mar­golies says in a phone in­ter­view. “I would go out by my­self and I’d turn my­self into a cam­era. Go in a ho­tel room and col­lapse and get up the next morn­ing and do it again and again and again. And I loved it.”

Mar­golies’s ob­ses­sion gen­er­ated what is now a gallery ex­cur­sion past Fun Town, the Hat ’n’ & Boots gas sta­tion, Howard John­son’s 28 Fla­vors, Van’s Chat & Chew, the Bell Boy Mo­tel and the Princess Ho­tel: Where Boys Are Up the Creek — what­ever that means.

This is no sen­ti­men­tal jour­ney, how­ever. “I don’t value sen­ti­ment,” Mar­golies says. His slides and re­lated col­lec­tions are a clear-eyed view of two-lane Amer­ica.

Along the routes Mar­golies drove, lodg­ings with names such as Moon Mo­tel beck­oned to mo­torists with the latest in mod­ern as­sets: pool, room phones, wa­ter beds, color TV.

Those tourist come-ons are still eye-catch­ing when framed and hung on white walls. Greuther de­scribes that art-gallery por­tion of the ex­hibit as “a con­cen­trated road trip.”

His fa­vorite im­ages are of signs for the Ura­nium Cafe and the Atomic Bar. “They’re al­most be­yond the pale,” says the Eng­land­born Greuther. “They seem uniquely Amer­i­can, sort of threat­en­ing, shaped like a bomb.”

En­hanc­ing the ex­hibit’s theme are spe­cial ef­fects, in­clud­ing the sound of pass­ing high­way traf­fic and the glare of on­com­ing head­lights. A sound­track plays “King of the Road,” “Drive My Car” and “Mus­tang Sally,” among other clas­sic road songs.

Mar­golies’s col­lec­tion of mo­tel do-not-dis­turb door hang­ers is im­prob­a­bly evoca­tive. Their rich graphic de­sign and cre­ative phras­ing pre­dates the min­i­mal­ist uni­for­mity of “pri­vacy” and “maid.” One reads, “Tip­toe by. I wan’ na sleep.” Another de­picts a kan­ga­roo with a snooz­ing joey in her pouch.

Equally res­o­nant is the ex­pan­sive dis­play of felt sou­venir pen­nants, the snow globes of their day. As wall text in the ex­hibit ex­plains, “To­day fridge mag­nets and key chains are pop­u­lar, while in the late 1800s, it was sou­venir spoons. In the mid 20th cen­tury, felt pen­nants were all the rage.”

Also on view are travel di­aries Mar­golies ac­quired. Their own­ers’ en­tries of­fer glimpses of past travel styles. One snip­pet reads: “Af­ter we did the dishes, Beth and I wrote post­cards while the rest played pinochle.”

To­day, Mar­golies’s New York apart­ment dou­bles as an archive for his 13,000 im­ages, sou­venirs and other ar­ti­facts.

That a large por­tion of his work be­came part of the Henry Ford’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion was pure serendip­ity. As a young Bri­tish stu­dent of me­dieval art and ar­chi­tec­ture in 1985, Greuther dis­cov­ered one of Mar­golies’s books, “End of the Road: Van­ish­ing High­way Ar­chi­tec­ture in Amer­ica,” in an over­stock bookshop in Ger­many.

That find was the be­gin­ning of a jour­ney for Greuther, be­cause it changed his pro­fes­sional di­rec­tion. The two met years later, when Mar­golies vis­ited the mu­seum as part of the 2013 Michigan Mod­ern tour.

Greuther ex­plains that when he greeted the vis­it­ing group, “there was a chap in a mu­seum wheel­chair, and thank God he still had his name tag on. I looked and said to­my­self, ‘Holy cow, it’s John Mar­golies.’ ”

Af­ter Greuther con­ducted the tour, Margo- lies says, Greuther “came up to me as I was hav­ing some cherry-vanilla ice cream and he told me I’d changed his life.

“It re­asserted the fact that what I’d been work­ing on all those years was re­ally im­por­tant.”

Dis­cov­er­ing the Henry Ford, Mar­golies says, “was like two old friends find­ing one another. I was blown away.”

Among the mu­seum’s reg­u­lar dis­plays is a guest room from a 1965 Hol­i­day Inn, a chain whose motto was once, “Where the best sur­prise is no sur­prise.” Uni­for­mity in travel is the flip side of Mar­golies’s fo­cus, how­ever. His lens cap­tured a scene that mostly faded with the ad­vent of in­ter­states, tighter zon­ing or­di­nances and tougher en­vi­ron­men­tal laws.

“Gas sta­tions,” Mar­golies says, “used to look like lit­tle houses with pumps out front. Now they look like a canopy over a bunch of pumps in front of a con­ve­nience store.”

Mar­golies says what re­ally erased mo­mand-pop orig­i­nal­ity was sim­ple eco­nom­ics.

“The busi­nesses along the in­ter­states did in the busi­nesses along the old routes and wiped out much of the kind of in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic places that were scream­ing out for at­ten­tion,” he says.

“If they were tacky, I didn’t care. Tacky isn’t nec­es­sar­ily bet­ter or worse than any other kind of taste, although many peo­ple would care to dis­agree with that.”

Tacky or not, within the cu­rated con­fines of a mu­seum, ob­jects cap­tured by a man with a con­nois­seur’s eye and a boy’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion get the at­ten­tion they once clam­ored for in such col­or­ful fash­ion.

PHOTOS BY JOHN MAR­GOLIES FROM THE COL­LEC­TIONS OF THE HENRY FORD MU­SEUM

THE COL­LEC­TIONS OF THE HENRY FORD MU­SEUM

FELIX ADAMO/TBC

Pho­tog­ra­pher JohnMar­golies, above, trav­eled 100,000 miles over three decades to doc­u­ment the aes­thetic of the Amer­i­can high­way — and its rust­ing ar­chi­tec­ture. The fruits of the pro­ject are on dis­play at the Henry Ford­Mu­seum, top, in Dear­born, Mich.

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