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 45 m.p.h. traffic lights and gas-war gas stations, motels and miniature golf courses and drive-in 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 Margolies 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 gas-station 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 mom-and-pop 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 in 2014: In addition to prints of retro signs and buildings, it includes vintage pennants, road maps, do-not-disturb 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 England-born 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 to myself, ‘Holy cow, it’s John Margolies.’ ”
After Greuther conducted the tour, Margolies 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 mom-and-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.
Powers is a freelance writer and editor in Detroit. Her Web site is RebeccaPowers.com.
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The Henry Ford Museum
20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, Mich.
The facility, which draws 1.6 million-plus visitors annually, includes five attractions: the Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, the Benson Ford Research Center and the Henry Ford Imax Theatre. “Roadside America” is included in museum admission. 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Adults $20, seniors $18, ages 5 to 12 $15, younger free.