I’m not sure if there is a name for people like us. People who admire and want to preserve highway history including the distinctive neon signs that dotted our landscape in decades past.
Bill Rose, a kindred spirit and charter member of this group of like minded people has his own moniker. It’s a good one. The Recapturist.
Bill, a fabulous photographer now based in Minneapolis, has a passion for preserving “Vintage America” with his camera. The results are stunning. (Do go to his website and look at the smorgasbord of photos. He has some great images along Highway 61 and so much more! Pure eye candy!)
I’m flattered he took this one of the Sandstone 61 Motel on Highway 61 after hearing about our project. I was so pleased that Bill came to the recent kick off party for the sequel to Tales in the studios of TPT. His photos were a big hit. I want you to know more about Bill and his passion so we did a Internet Interview. Enjoy!
1.) You’re a young guy. One wouldn’t expect someone your age to be smitten with old signs. What intrigues you about old signs and bits of roadside Americana? What’s the Recapturist?
Recapturist is the intersection of several things I’m passionate about: photography, road trips, preserving vintage signs, and the ‘micro-history’ of America.
Each year I drive thousands of miles along the nearly forgotten two-lane highways and back roads of America on a never ending quest to photograph whatever vintage neon signs I can find.
These relics of the American roadside have stood for decades but are now highly endangered as ‘progress’ continues to win the war against preservation in many parts of the country. Frankly, we are close to losing these signs forever. I consider it my job to make sure that they will at least live on through pictures should traditional preservation efforts fail.
The result is a gallery of fine art photographs documenting these signs, which I accompany with whatever details about their history I can uncover. The money I generate by selling prints and canvas art of my work goes toward funding future trips, enabling me to document even more signs.
2.) How did you get started?
The seed for all of this was planted back in 2006. I was living in Seattle and had just purchased my first real digital camera. About that same time I started to notice all the old motel signs that dotted a notoriously sketchy strip of Aurora Ave sometimes referred to as “The Blade”. So one Saturday, I took my camera and walked up and down the street shooting every sign from a variety of angles. I quickly realized that the full personality and character of these (often derelict) structures were much more obvious when viewed up close through my camera lens. I was hooked – and I’ve been doing it ever since.
3.) How would you describe your shooting style. I noticed most of your photos are captured in daylight. Is there a reason?
I try and cast the sign as the “hero” in my work. It stands stoically up in the sky and your perspective is from below looking up at it in all its glory.
I don’t just want to take a picture; I want to breathe life back into the subject so that its true nature is revealed to anyone who views the final image. These structures deserve to be remembered as the highly skilled designers and craftsman who created them originally intended, and that philosophy dictates any color corrections made during post-processing.
I might be in the minority, but I do prefer to shoot these signs during the daylight hours. Glowing neon is beautiful, but at night that is all you see. You miss out on the intricate artwork or the angular lines or the interestingness of the chipped paint. Those are the details that I get most excited about capturing.
4.) What equipment do you use?
Most of my photos are taken with a DSLR. My current go-to set-up is a Canon 60D with a Sigma 17-50mm zoom lens. I tend to take a lot of low-angle shots and the articulating screen feature on my camera is critical for doing that well, especially while on the road. Once I get home, all of my post-processing work is done in Adobe Lightroom.
6.) Why is it important to preserve, via photography, these bits of history?
I’ve noticed that many documentary photographers often neglect to communicate the story behind the image they worked so hard to produce. I feel that providing context is a critical step in helping the viewer connect more deeply with the artwork, especially when the goal is preservation.
Think about it, why would anyone make an effort to preserve something they don’t know anything about? So, having some sort of story to tell about each image is critical to my process.
Sometimes I am fortunate enough to have conversations with people directly connected to the sign while I am there shooting it (the business owner, a local historian, etc.) Other times I rely on information gathered from online sources or by reaching out other like-minded preservationists I’ve met through the years.
On some occasions I’ve even been known to call the business owner for an interview after the fact. Whatever it takes to attach some significance to the image I am presenting.
Often times I wind up with stories that would otherwise never be told – small slices of the past that exist only in the memories of the people who experienced them firsthand. This is what I mean by the ‘micro-history’ of America.
7.) What kind of feedback do you get from people when they see your photos?
It’s a nostalgic experience for many people. It reminds them of their childhood, or a family member who had some connection to that business, or is just a reminder of “the good old days”. It’s wonderful to see people light up when they recognize something that carries fond memories from their past.
I also sometimes hear from people that they’ve never paid much attention to these signs, but after seeing my photos find themselves looking for them everywhere. I love it when people tell me my work has made them see their town in a new way.
Every artist wants their work to trigger some kind of response in the audience. I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed that happen on numerous occasions.
8.) Do you take road trips in search of signs? Best places for old signage?
Believe it or not, very few of my photos include subjects I specifically set out to shoot. They are simply things I just stumbled upon while driving.
My wife and I take as many road trips as we can. We usually take a two week trip every summer, but many of our trips are much shorter than that – sometimes just a day trip in a direction we haven’t gone before. The only rule we follow is to avoid Interstates at all costs because the good stuff is mostly along the blue roads and in the small towns.
There are a lot of great places for vintage neon. Southern California is where the whole Googie movement started, so naturally they have an abundance of great signage. The Bay Area is also fantastic, as is Wildwood, NJ. St. Petersburg, FL is another of my favorites.
Minnesota holds its own, though. I’ve been blown away by some of the signs I’ve come across during day trips around the state. They are all part of what makes drives along historic roads like Highway 61 all the more enjoyable.
9.) Do you have favorite signs?
I’ve been asked that before and always have a hard time answering it. I definitely have some that I like more than others, but picking a favorite is almost impossible. I like to think that my favorite sign is just around the next bend.
10.) What are your plans for the future?
I’m currently in conversations with a gallery about doing a solo show next year, which is very exciting.
In the meantime, my goal is to publish a book. That format is well suited to the documentary-style photos and story-telling approach I take toward my work.
Other than that, the goal is to get back out on the road with my camera as much as possible. Vintage signs are endangered species that are disappearing by the day, so I need to capture as many as possible before they are gone forever.
Amen to Bill’s last statement about the need to capture these bits of history before they disappear. That is why I’m doing “Tales” and why Bill continues to hit the road with his camera. Thanks to Bill Rose “The Recapturist” for sharing his images with us and for all his great work! We’ll see you on the road!