"When the sun goes down on my side of town," sings Ronnie Dunn in 1991's Neon Moon, "that lonesome feeling comes to my door, the whole world turns blue." In his characteristically reedy, plaintive voice, he describes a smoke-filled honky-tonk, where he spends almost every night "beneath the light of this neon moon."
There must be hundreds of similar songs, each set in an anonymous juke joint off the highway somewhere. Inside is a stuffed deer, a surly bartender and a dusty dance floor. Whatever it is that's so romantic about being lonesome in a neon-lit bar probably isn't complicated: the bleak satisfaction of licking one's wounds; the question, both sharpened and dulled by whiskey, of who might walk through the door. A honky-tonk's ineffable appeal, what leads us like moths to hot pink flames, is somehow similar to the appeal of the open road—and in particular, the enduring expansiveness of the American West. As Don DeLillo once wrote, "Let's just say the desert is an impulse."
Photographer Steve Fitch certainly seems to think so.
Since the 1970s, Fitch has trained his lens on overlooked or seemingly unspectacular landmarks along United States highways, which he manages to make singularly appealing; even seductive. In his latest exhibit at photo-eye Gallery, Vanishing Vernacular—also the title of his eighth publication, which released concurrently—Fitch doubles down on his longstanding visual thesis: Whether replaced with chain restaurants, torn down or simply left to ruin, the landmarks or "vernacular" of America's highways are changing.
Long road trips transform passengers into peculiarly captive audiences. In hurtling through vast swaths of are-we-there-yet nothingness, even the most routine features of a landscape can become mysterious. "We're excited for the show," photo-eye's Lucas Shaffer says. "It's serving as a kind of retrospective for Steve, since we'll have more than 40 pieces installed, covering 35 years of work."
After picking up a degree in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1970s, and later, an MFA in photography from UNM, Fitch began taking road trips across the West, shooting pictures along the way. He has described himself as a "visual folklorist who uses photography to collect material." Fitch obviously remains doggedly fascinated with quotidian aspects of American landscapes—ratty hotels and decrepit signs, for instance—indicators of places that are evolving and in flux, or, in some cases, poignantly obsolete.
"Star Vu, Longmont, Colorado, 1980" is a twilight shot of a drive-in movie theater. Fitch took the image nearly 40 years ago, but already the novelty of outdoor film screenings must have been wearing off. The marquee, which advertises the movies Airplane! and Starting Over, is in visible disrepair, with peeling paint and spotty lighting. A few neon letters spelling the theater's name are burned out, and though a little ticket booth and concession stand are visible off to the right, the scene feels overwhelmingly tenuous.
The blazing neon sign in "Grandview Motel, Raton, New Mexico, 1980" advertises lodging that's out of frame. Vertical letters spell MOTEL in bright red, with Grandview appearing nearby in peppy turquoise cursive. The sign blares TV IN ROOMS and WINTER RATES. Somewhat hilariously, a zippy, bulb-rimmed arrow reads QUIET.
Many of Fitch's photos, though, are strikingly sparse. In the windswept "Highway 66, Chambliss, California, 1986," a strip of fresh-looking yellow-striped asphalt appears before a long-defunct gas station. It doesn't feel deserted; it feels dystopian. In [TK TITLE], the narrow, needle-like body of a radio tower shoots upward like a rocket. It seems to strain against supportive cables that anchor it to the ground, with red lights lining its form. The surroundings are rural, abjectly beautiful—ombre, melted-looking sky and placidly smooth farmland.
The urge to get in a car and drive can't possibly be strictly American, yet it feels uniquely part of our collective character. When I look at these photos I remember things I thought I didn't care about: stopping to stretch; sunflower seeds at a gas station marked by a ginormous green dinosaur. I feel my foot on the pedal, I can practically hear a fuzzy car radio and my fingers on its dial, casting about unsuccessfully for something other than old country-Western numbers sung by a lonesome tenor, beseeching me to join him, to watch my "broken dreams dance in and out of the beams of a neon moon."
Vanishing Vernacular Opening Reception
5 pm Friday March 30. Free.
541 S Guadalupe St.,