When one reminisces about vacations and family roadtrips of the past, one often remembers the many unique and different motels, hotels, diners, restaurants, and “filling stations” stayed in, stopped in, and passed by along the way. Can’t you just see the old tall neon signs of these sentimental places towering above as you whisked by?
One person who’s brought these memories back to vivid and colorful life is Stefanie Poteet of San Diego, California. Andy from American Roadtrip had the privilege to speak with Stefanie about her extraordinary portfolio of Retro Roadside Photography recently, and that is the focus of the travelog entry for today.
Andy: It’s a sheer joy to view your extensive and ever growing catalog of vintage sign images. What is it that sparked your interest in this rather unique hobby?
Stefanie: I’m glad you enjoy them, thanks! Actually it all kind of happened by accident. I had always enjoyed taking pictures but couldn’t fit a photography class in my High School schedule. So it wasn’t until sophomore year in college when I decided I really wanted to pursue this further. I saved up enough money to purchase a good camera, and kept purchasing more equipment. I hadn’t really thought about honing in on any specific topic to shoot until the summer of 2009, when my boyfriend at the time and I decided to take a five day cross country trip from San Diego to Boston. He had offered to make a few photo stops along the way if I found something I wanted to shoot. Before we left for the trip, I went to Flickr to do some research and plotted on a map a bunch of interesting places and things I might want to see, but this old Motel sign on Route 66 in Seligman Arizona, really caught my eye. Well we headed out and when we pulled into the parking lot of the motel and I stood beneath this sign I instantly fell in love. I knew then I was hooked. I took dozens of pictures of the Supai Motel sign and it remains one of my favorite to this day. From then on it grew into an obsession.
Andy: It really doesn’t hit you until you see them in person, I know, and I honestly believe your photographs bring out that “bigness” (among other things) quite well. So we know you planned out that initial trip in advance just a bit, but have you had any moments when you passed a “diamond in the rough” per se, and had to slam on the breaks and jump out?
Stefanie: I do plan extensively when I venture out for a trip, but there have been several instances when I’ve had to stop the car and turn around after seeing something amazing. On one recent trip between Flagstaff and Santa Monica, we drove past this Motel and Pool sign that had some waves on it. Since we had driven over the Cali/Arizona border at night on the beginning of the trip I hadn’t noticed it, but it was on the way back during the day that I caught a glimpse, and we did a total U-turn after missing an exit to come back for a closer look. The sign was still there but the Motel itself was completely gone – just a cement foundation. I’m really glad we came back and I got some great pictures.
Andy: The Motel being gone adds to the mystique, no doubt. Of all the different types of signs that you’ve photographed, do you happen to have a favorite category – Vintage cars, bowling alleys, motels, lodges, etc.?
Stefanie: They’re all pretty much favorites to me in their own way. I do have a special appreciation when it comes to cars, however. My Dad is a mechanic so vintage cars are in my blood. The 1970 Chevelle is my dream car. The Chevy Nova and Monte Carlo aren’t too shabby either. I’m that girl who loves to go to car shows. Shooting signs came after cars and like I’ve mentioned before, I believe I’m hooked for the long run.
Andy: Much like Birdwatching groups, I wonder are there similar “Signwatching” groups, and might you be a member of any?
Stefanie: Like other groups of people that share a common interest, you simply find each other. A group of us met through social media and if you search #signgeeks on Instagram you’ll see a pretty extensive collection of everybody’s work. Eventually a group of us had a sign geeks meet up at the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, also known as the “Boneyard.” The Boneyard is a sign geeks fantasy come true that consists of a huge open air lot featuring all kinds of signs and sculptures from old casinos and businesses. It was kind of funny that on the day we went, we were the last group of the day to take the tour and nobody at the museum had told our guide, April, who we were. As the tour went on and she talked about the history of various signs she could kind of sense that we knew quite a bit about old neon signs. She was a sweetheart with a great sense of humor and really embraced us.
There are literally hundreds of signs to see in the Boneyard, but one that really stands out for me is the original from the Moulin Rouge Hotel which was the very first desegregated hotel-casino in the US in 1955. It is a dream of mine to meet Betty Willis, the designer of the sign who is now 90 years old.
Andy: The more I talk to you, the more I want to be a Signgeek – I’ve got to visit this museum! Having met your fellow kindred spirits in person, do you still keep in touch?
Stefanie: Absolutely. It was so wonderful meeting up with these people for the tour, and some have become close friends and a major inspiration and resource for my work. One is a successful screenwriter who posts address info on hidden treasures he comes across when filming various television programs on location. Another I’d been following for years before finally meeting in person. Again, it’s been such a pleasure and fulfilling experience that I know will continue. As a matter of fact, I’ll be meeting up with some friends for my project in San Jose and the Bay area this Memorial Day weekend.
Andy: That’s fantastic and I can’t wait to see the new “old” signs you’ll be shooting. Where do you see the business a few years from now?
Stefanie: My main focus for now is to keep growing my collection online. Eventually it would be nice to end up in many of the motel lobby shops on Route 66 for those who don’t shop online, and perhaps do more trade shows, but for now I’m enjoying the adventure and where it will lead.
Andy: It looks like the adventure has led you to a Bob’s Big Boy, and you look fantastic in the shirt by the way. Are you a big fan of Bob’s?
Stefanie: I first ate at Bob’s when exploring Route 66 in Pasadena, and it’s always fun to work Bob’s into my road trips.
Thanks so much for taking a pit-stop and making the American Roadtrip part of your road trip Stefanie, and congratulations on your magnificent collection.
To see Stefanie’s collection of Retro Roadside photo’s filled with Route 66 landmarks, vintage signs, old neon, classic hot rods and more, visit the American Roadtrip Gift shop here.