John Margolies


Conchita Fernandes looks at the work of John Margolies who spent a lifetime documenting the flamboyant and garish trappings of obscure towns.

Poor Man’s Tires, Greenwood Road, Shreveport, Louisiana (1982).


Necessity and or desire have spurred several inventions that have shaped the course of history. Take, for instance, John G Rand’s invention of flexible zinc tubes to store paint (1841) that enabled painters for the very first time to leave their studios and set off to the great outdoors to reminisce and paint. Similarly, in 1888, George Eastman’s first Kodak camera came at a time when photographers toiled with the cumbersome large format box camera, and by 1900, with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie, photography became not just effortless, but was no longer restricted to the rich and affluent. Driven by the same compulsion, Henry Ford created the first Model T car that was simple, reliable and affordable to the average American.

It was perhaps the convergence of the two—the accessibility of photography and travel—that eulogised the idea of the great American road trip, a theme that appears as much in literary works (Jack Kerouac’s The Open Road being the most famous) as the moments immortalised by the camera. The open road epitomised the American dream—the freedom to seek untapped reservoirs of what prevailed further up the horizon. For John Margolies, the open road became a conduit to understanding the American vernacular, which he pursued impulsively and extensively.

The Beginning of His Obsession

It’s hard to ignore the compulsiveness that radiates from Margolies’ work—amounting to over thirteen thousand images that are today preserved by the Library of Congress in the United States. His fixation commenced at an early age while riding in the backseat of his parents’ car, where he first developed an interest in roadside attractions. His parents, however, were less than thrilled. “My parents’ generation thought it was the ugliest stuff in the world. I liked places where everything was screaming for attention,” he said. But it was his “scoreboard mentality” that propagated into detailed checklists of the things he saw, a habit that continued into adulthood. He reiterated an instance from his childhood, where at the age of thirteen, during a trip to Orange Beach, Alabama, he made a list of every gasoline brand that he encountered along the way. “It was a long list. There were a lot of gas station brands in 1953. I love lists,” he told The Washington Post in 2015.

Before embarking on his enterprising journey (in the early 1970s) that would last nearly four decades, Margolies had obtained a B.A. in Journalism and Art History from the University of Pennsylvania, and later enrolled at the Annenberg School of Communication. Soon after, he was appointed as the Assistant Editor of Architectural Record, and later became the Program Director of the Architectural League of New York.

Margolies utilised his position to organise shows and write about architectural designs that were deemed “tacky” by modernists. “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,” he said. Equipped with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and later, a Guggenheim fellowship, amongst others, Margolies set out on an enterprising journey to document the topographical exclamation points along the American landscape.

Out on the Road

Margolies’ work was as much spurred by his obsession with roadside attractions as it was by its eventual obliteration. “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 said. He particularly loved novelty buildings—structures that mimicked their own shape or function. “Renting the largest car he could afford, usually a Cadillac, he spent as many as eight weeks at a stretch in pursuit of enterprises whose names read like found poetry: Moby-Dick Golf, the Missile Motel, the Uranium Cafe, Cohen’s Chicken on a Tray”—an excerpt taken from his obituary by Margalit Fox, for The New York Times.

Because he was on the road for extended periods, Margolies lived out of shopping bags and motels. “I once had a friend with me and she lasted about five days. She took a bus back home because every decision has to do with me, me and me. 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.”

Golden Eagle gas pumps, 8th & Market Streets, San Diego, California (1977).

When asked whether he knew where he was headed, he said, “Seldom would I be able to explain to people what I was looking for. When you go to a town that you’ve been to before, maybe one of the questions is where are the porno movie theaters, where are the bad parts of town where things haven’t been redone or revitalised, except that I wouldn’t explain it that way,” he said.

His photographic gear comprised a 35mm Canon FT along with ASA 25 film to obtain maximum colour saturation that you see in his photographs. When film became obsolete, Margolies stopped (“When Kodachrome ended, I ended.”) because he felt that shooting digitally would change the nature of his images. Phil Patton, the design journalist, curator and author, accompanied Margolies on a few trips. He had this to say—“He packed coolers for keeping the film cool and separate bags for toiletries and kitchen supplies. Most nights he stayed in motels. He always brought clothespins to secure the drapes and a Fred Flintstone night light on a twenty-foot extension cord to illuminate unfamiliar bathrooms.”

Coney Island Dairyland, end detail, Route 285, Aspen Park, Colorado (1980).

Creating Factual Representations of Places

Ironically, Margolies’ work is devoid of the very subject—the open road—that spurred it. His images are straightforward (sometimes shot at an angle to provide a better view of its details), unsentimental (“I don’t value sentiments,”), calculative (the tight edge-to-edge crop indicates what he exactly wanted you to see), and lacked environmental context (“I want these to be timeless pictures without identifying details.”). His pictures are also devoid of distractions—people, litter (he carried a broom in his car to sweep any debris), or even parked cars (with a few exceptions)—a result of photographing early in the morning, which explains the trademark blue, cloudless skies in his photographs. “I love the light at that time of day; it’s like golden syrup. Everything is fresh and no one is there to bother you,” he said.

One of the distinct qualities of Margolies’ work, to put it simply, is that he photographed what was outside his mind, unlike photographers (for instance, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander who also shot while on the road) whose images are as much a projection of the interiors of their mind as what their cameras documented. His documentary treatment without subjecting his photographs to any notion of sentimentality (he photographed things as they are), and that he did not photograph with an artistic flourish, lent his work an invaluable quality for study and analysis. Marc Greuther, the Chief Curator and Senior Director of Historical Resources at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, described Margolies as a “single-minded individual with a laser guided interest.”

Critique of his Work

Margolies abhorred any labeling of his work as kitsch. Talking about it with the Canadian Globe and Mail, in 1987, he had said, “People generally have thought that what’s important are the large, unique architectural monuments. They think Toronto’s City Hall is important, but not those wonderful gnomes—castle gas stations in Toronto, a Detroit influence that crept across the border and polluted your wonderfully conservative environment.”

His first book, The End of the Road: Vanishing Highway Architecture in America (1981), received mixed reviews. In his review in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Folke T. Kihlstedt described the book as a “nostalgic venture” and felt that it lacked “close analysis and critical judgment,” and that “only the most uncritical enthusiast of roadside architecture… or vernacular Americana will be satisfied with The End of the Road.” In a piece titled Mainstream and Marginal: Situating the American Roadside Photographs of John Margolies, Gabrielle Esperdy mentions Pant Goldberger, an architecture critic, and what he thought about Margolies’ photographs… “Although undeniably delightful, (Margolies’ work) had much architectural significance beyond its celebration of Yankee eccentricity and rugged, if market-driven individualism.”

Rawhide City billboard, I-94, Mandan, North Dakota (1980).

“The commercial architecture by the side of the road is very important; it is America’s definitive contribution to the art of design in the twentieth century,” Margolies stated in the book. “He did not admit mere timid affection for his photographic subjects; he unambiguously declared his love for them, without irony, without embarrassment, without condescension,” Esperdy said.

His Extensive Collection of Paraphernalia

Margolies’ enthusiasm for roadside architecture and signage extended to his collection of a wide variety of paraphernalia. “His home brimmed with artifacts of American material culture that he amassed with abandon: vintage photographs, retail signs, postcards, pennants, matchbooks, travel brochures, diner place mats, maps…” an article stated. He methodically detailed these in notebooks that ran into four hundred pages. On maps he circled the areas he visited and the mileage he consumed (100,000 miles across forty eight states in totality). He collected vintage postcards to see if the places immortalised in them still existed or to find former pictures of sites that he had already photographed.

Stamie’s Beachwear Jantzen sign, Ocean Avenue, Daytona Beach, Florida (1990).

One of the Greatest Photographers

John Margolies’ abounding breadth of work is at once comparable to the pictures produced by the photographers appointed by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. “In the photos of John Vachon, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott and Walker Evans, one finds ample evidence of the same type of programmatic buildings, shacks, stands, stations and signage that attracted Margolies three decades later,” Gabrielle Esperdy stated in her piece.

Perhaps the most fitting comparison though, with regards to labour, volume and clarity in vision, can be made with a photographer that preceded Margolies by over seven decades. Eugène Atget, like Margolies, was on a mission to immortalise the city that he loved (Paris) before it disappeared into the throngs of modernity.

The Great Escape bike sign, Route 29, Spartanburg, South Carolina (1988).

Like Margolies, Atget did not withhold any artistic whims about his work, and called his photographs documents. Although Atget’s photographs, when seen in its entirety, abound with sentimentality, like Margolies, he systematically worked on preserving every façade of Paris—its buildings, its doors, its windows, its alleyways, its trees, its gardens, its statues.

C. Ford Peatross, Director, Center for Architecture, Design and Engineering, at the Library of Congress had this to say of Margolies’ work, “I see John as the ringmaster of what might be called the architecture of hyperbole, reassuring us that the featured subjects are remarkable, respectable, and key manifestations of our national, local and key identities.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Better Photography.