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The long and winding road

An unusual photography exhibition afforded glimpses of an America that has now vanished

— Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

The well-mounted exhibition made the viewer feel the graceful liveliness of roadside attractions in the American continent.

IT MAY be easy to flash the thumb's down sign — particularly if you have been to be a victim of potholed surfaces seen all round in Bangalore — but the fact remains that world over and from time immemorial, the concept of the road has come to represent much more than a mere aid of movement and transportation of men and material. In modern times, it has not only become a symbol of human development but has even assumed profound metaphorical allusion.

Unique traveller

John Margolies is a unique traveller. For more than 25 years, he has been — quite literally — on the American road. His passion for journeying, however, is not restricted to visiting exotic locations or beautiful tourist spots to relish the panorama of beautiful landscapes. In pursuit of a quintessential roadside experience, he has, over these years, crisscrossed the continental United States covering more than 100,000 miles, to explore the roads, highways, and byways of the country.

Being America's leading chronicler of commercial architecture, Margolies, in his long series of marathon automobile trips took some 100,000 photographs of about 15,000 old buildings, signs, storefronts, and other commercial and civic structures. His archive of photographs of American roadside architecture is acknowledged as the most comprehensive study of this subject.

His books include The End of the Road: Vanishing Highway Architecture in America (l98l), Pump and Circumstance: Glory Days of the Gas Station ( l993), Ticket to Paradise: American Movie Theaters and How We Had Fun (l99l) and, Home Away From Home: Motels in America (l995). His photographs and articles have been published in magazines like The New York Times magazine, Smithsonian and Esquire, and, as the subject of a History Channel special, they were featured as Highway Hangouts.

Gleaned from thousands of images taken during his long drawn-out excursions, a set of 57 photographs was cumulated into a touring exhibition American Roadside Architecture.

Watching the well-mounted exhibition, the viewer was able to feel the graceful liveliness of roadside attractions like the gas stations, eateries and lodgings, which have become "artefacts of a creative, whimsical, and very inviting moment in American business and tourism". Brilliantly lit and superbly composed, the technically flawless photographs made compelling visual statements even as they glowed with an inherent nostalgic feel.

Roadside businesses

As the brochure to the exhibition pointed out: "At the beginning of the 21st Century the old roadside architecture has all but disappeared... Most of the old roadside businesses have closed and ... Margolies captures and preserves images of this vanishing tradition in American commerce... These photographs presented a portrait of a more innocent time in America, when business people could fulfil their American dreams by hanging out a sign by the roadside and make a good living by catering to the needs of the motoring public."

The exhibition was at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.


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