A Nostalgic Road Trip Across The USA With Nick Leonard

Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by Stella Gelardi Malfilatre.

Born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada – Nick Leonard’s fascination with the city’s creative signage has been a constant fixture in his visual memory. The more he learned about the places behind these memories the more he felt the urge to capture them in the present day. The artistry of these original signs and the significant detail and craftsmanship that goes into each one felt like a forgotten art worth showcasing. So Nick set about photographing them through the lens of his Polaroid camera and found himself traveling across the USA in hunt of new ones to photograph. He shared with us his ultimate road trip tips and what’s next for the series.

Tell me about how your urge to photograph these signs started?

I took the city bus everywhere growing up. When I started exploring downtown Las Vegas area by foot, I became very intrigued with what was left in terms of signage from closed motels and various older businesses. Las Vegas is a city that is constantly reinventing itself in so many ways for better or worse, and so much of what I have already captured has since been demolished and lost by way of gentrification.

Why did you choose to capture these photographs with your Polaroid camera?

I started using Polaroid cameras towards the end as they began to pull the plug on instant film production in 2008. Luckily I stocked up on lots of integral as well as pack film at the time. Capturing these signs and buildings on an instant film medium really struck a chord with me – it just felt like a perfect match. From then on I began acquiring Polaroid cameras and film like crazy. I’ve enjoyed being a “Pioneer Member” as part of the Impossible Project journey and following along to where we are now with Polaroid Originals. Long live instant film!

Your focus rests on the nostalgia of original signs as opposed to the newer shinier creations – why is that?

It seems today’s new “signs” are getting more and more cheap, not to mention uninspiring. LED screens of all shapes and sizes along with LED rope lighting, and wimpy vinyl banners are becoming far too common and often replacements for vintage signage. I think LED certainly has its place in the world but not for street-side signage.

When did your hobby project go from being a few photos to a full series? How long did you spend making it?

I believe it blossomed into a full series the more I continued to explore various areas around the Las Vegas valley and beyond. I’ve explored northern Nevada towns, and Reno a few times. Other towns such as Elko and Wells, Nevada are some that I hope to spend more time in one of these days. As far as the rest of the US goes, I have made quite a mass of images throughout California. I always enjoy my visits to California as there’s always more to document that I didn’t make it to on a prior visit. I’ve made a lot of work in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and other states. When the opportunity comes along to visit new cities and states, I am always game!

How did it feel driving around America – do you have any road trip tips for us?

When planning road trips, I always make a detailed location list of places to visit – signs worth viewing at night that light up, roadside eateries that are worth stopping in at or supporting as well as vintage motels to lodge at when possible while on the road trip. I always have a road trip playlist ready, with the likes of The Breeders, Hole, the 80’s station on Sirius XM, Pandora on shuffle. It can get hot out there, and a whole day photographing these places the best we can. We don’t let hunger get in the way, snacks will be in the vehicle. To end each day on a bang, we’ll always support a vintage restaurant of any sort- drive-in, diner, burger joints or so on, usually any place that has historic bones to it and a neon sign to boot, chances are you’ll find us there!

A lot of these places are out in the desert or remote areas – what kind of weather are you hoping for when you head out on the road?

We always hope the weather provides pretty, puffy clouds as those are a favorite. As far as temperatures go, I have and will continue to shoot in all of it. From 90 degrees Fahrenheit with 80 percent humidity in July in Houston, Texas or 30 degrees with a windchill. I’ll try to wear what’s best for extreme temperatures and power through it. Oh, and always drink lots of water!

What kind of people did you meet along the way and how did this alter your journey or the experience of what you were photographing?

We enjoy meeting the owners and faces behind the properties we spend quite a lot of time creating images at. There have been many friendships made with motel owners throughout our travels. It’s always fun to not only make images of these motels but to spend the night at them, learn the history, and get a full experience. I enjoy striking up a conversation with regards to their signage; how much it means to people. Most understand and appreciate the significance their sign has on their community. Sometimes not so much. It’s always interesting. We purchase t-shirts, postcards (I enjoy mailing and collecting those while on road trips), or any advertising merchandise a business may have to offer to help support and promote.

Do you see this as an ongoing series and where are you headed next?

Without a doubt, I see this series of places I enjoy documenting with my cameras as a lifelong journey. A goal I have before I pass on is to visit every state and document the subjects I’m interested in that still remain. I want to continue helping put the word out there that all these classic roadside motels, drive-ins, restaurants, and so forth and add significant historic value for the cities as well as small-town communities they reside in. I will continue to join in preservation efforts whenever possible while hopefully inspiring others to also take a stand. Finally, I plan to start getting serious about printing more of my work and offering prints for sale in the future.

Follow along with Nick’s journey on his website.