Nighttime neon

The photographer capturing America’s vanishing motels
By Atina Dimitrova | Art | 21 June 2016

Blue Marlin Motel

Philadelphia-based artist Mark Havens is releasing a book of photographs documenting his ten years at Wildwood, a small barrier island located of southern New Jersey. Titled, Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods, the project traces the vibrant 1950s architecture that once shaped the area and that is now disappearing at the hands of developers.

The island of Wildwood contains the highest concentration of mid-century modern hospitality architecture in the US and used to be a top holiday destination for working class Americans. Now, however, a great number of motels there have been demolished for new developments. Haven’s book reacts to this directly, in our interview below, he tells us he wants to, “slow down or suspend the passage of time” by photographing remaining motels facing an uncertain future, alongside others, shot just before their demolition.

Devoid of people or activity of any kind, the images hold a certain vulnerability whilst highlighting the diverse character of their architectural subjects. 


“I’d return to try again only to find that the motel had been demolished. For a time, it seemed like the more I shot, the faster the motels seemed to fall.”

Atina Dimatrova: What does Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of Wildwoods mean to you?
Mark Havens: My family began going to Wildwood in the late 1930s and in the 1970s it became a place where our extended family would gather for one week every summer. I was very blessed, for many years we had four generations of our family together there all at once. This summer will be our 45th year in a row of getting together. It’s still a very special time for us all and because I grew up with these motels as the backdrop of my summer for as long as I could remember, they seemed as immovable as mountains to me. But when they began to be demolished I realised that they were something that I needed to capture before they disappeared. That was ten years ago.

AD: Is it an ending of a phase for you as an artist or an introduction to new aspirations?
MH: It’s certainly the ending of a long phase of work for me but it’s also the beginning of being able to fully engage with a number of other projects, so it’s an incredibly exciting time as well.

AD: Why was it important to bring all these photos together in a photography book?
MH: First, I think seeing photographs in print is best, whether it be in a book or a gallery or on your own wall. The internet, for all it’s benefits, isn’t very conducive to lingering, to spending time with any one thing. A well-made photograph is full of meaning and intent. The angle, the lighting, the cropping, what the creator has chosen to show and to exclude. Gary Winogrand called it knowing “where to stand”. It takes time to discern those things and I find myself going back over and over photo books that I have and they each seem to unfold new levels of meaning and intent the longer I spend with them.

Second, this series captures a unique moment in time – a number of these motels have since been demolished. Some I photographed just before they were knocked down, or in some other cases, while demolition was happening on the other side of the building. And now they’re gone. You’re not able to walk through Wildwood and see the same things in the same way anymore. So I think that being able to take that walk figuratively via the book is something special.

Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods

AD: Your focus is primarily the architecture. Why did you make it the main element in the photos? What did the architecture show which the movement of people, for example, could not have represented?
MH: The deserted nature of the photographs started as a practical measure but very quickly turned into a primary component of the artistic statement that I was trying to make with the project. Once I began to shoot photographs that were devoid of people or activity of any kind, I realised that the isolation actually clarified the bold architectural forms and, more importantly, served as an analogue of the larger situation. Many of these buildings are empty not simply because the summer is over, but because we as a culture have moved on. The series is an attempt to bring out the interplay of an idealised past and its inexorable disappearance. People actually do inhabit these images but only by inference and allusion; and in many ways, it’s this physical absence from which the work draws its strength. Impressions are made at a more elemental depth, below explicit communication, echoing that most universal of all human experiences: the inexorable passage of time what is left behind in its wake.

Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods

AD: Do you consider photography a way of immortalising? What feelings did this process bring to you, especially when it comes to capturing the architecture as it used to be in the 1950s and 1960s?
MH: I think my work could be seen in one sense as an attempt to slow down or suspend the passage of time. For these places that were disappearing forever, I wanted to use photography as a tool to capture some tiny strand of them before they vanished. The demolitions were much more frequent when I began. Each time I would take a trip to the town it seemed like I was greeted with new dirt lots where motels had been just a few days before. It was a very difficult circumstance to learn in — a little like trying to learn how to be a doctor by working in an Emergency Room. There was no room for error. If I got it wrong, there was very little chance I’d get to try again. The motels were disappearing that fast. I remember a number of occasions during that time when I’d photograph a motel, but get some part of the process wrong and not get any usable images. I’d return to try again only to find that the motel had been demolished. For a time, it seemed like the more I shot, the faster the motels seemed to fall.

Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods

AD: How did your passion of taking photos evolve in this area and how did this change you personally and professionally?
MH: This project was the actual start of my artistic career. When I first started the project, I wasn’t making art, I didn’t know anything about making photographs and wasn’t interested in learning. I was in grad school for industrial design. But the motels were starting to get knocked down and I felt the need to capture something about them before they were gone. I scraped some money together and paid a professional photographer to come to Wildwood with me for a day and shoot some motels that I pointed to. The results were okay, but they really weren’t what I was picturing. So I reluctantly bought my own camera – a used 35mm Nikon from a shop called Happy Photo. And I began to learn. As the years went by I progressed from 35mm to medium format film to digital.

I started by photographing several motels during the tourist season. But I soon realised that even a single parked vehicle obscured a huge amount of what I wanted to show. I then tried photographing in the off-season but then the motels were fully closed-up and dark, almost feature-less. I eventually figured out that there were only two very small windows of time when I could capture the images that I envisioned: at the very beginning of the tourist season (around mid May) and at the very end (around the end of September). Only then were the lights on, the pools full, the chairs and plastic palm trees out, yet no one was around. It’s one of the reasons that the series took so long to complete.

Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods by Mark Havens (published by Booth-Clibborn Editions) is available from 21st June.


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