Road Tripping with Vintage Neon Signs
Neon signs, which once lit up places like New York City and along Route 66, are much less common these days, many having been replaced by cheaper plastic signs and new digital billboards. Wanting to capture the remaining pieces of this classic Americana, Seattle-based photographer John Barnes set out on an RV trip across North America and spent over two-and-half years scouting out vintage neon signs that are still glowing.
After visiting 38 states, 5 Canadian provinces, and taking 50,000+ photos along the way, John compiled some of the best highlights in his newly published book Neon Road Trip. John was kind enough to answer some questions for us and share his experiences from his travels.
Why did you decide to travel by RV? What type of RV did you drive?
When I started planning the road trip, it was pretty obvious the most economic way to do it would be in an RV. I chose a Class B motorhome mostly because of the smaller size. I knew I would be doing a lot of driving around at night in cities. The size of the vehicle was probably my biggest consideration. I bought the RV brand new with a warranty. I didn’t want to have any repair issues during the trip.
How long was your road trip? Where did you travel?
I left Seattle in March of 2017. Then meandered around the US and Canada for two and a half years. In addition to photographing neon signs, there were also many places around North America that I wanted to see.
The National Parks for example, I did not visit all of them on this trip but most of them. So in my research of neon signs there were a number of signs I definitely wanted to photograph. And so the road trip course was really a “connect the dots” type of trip.
What inspired you to take a trip across the US to photograph neon signs?
The “Neon Road Trip” started for me in Sacramento in 1978. I was working towards my BFA in documentary photography. I read an article in the newspaper about the Board of Supervisors. (They) were considering restricting the use of neon lighting in exterior signs. So I started driving around at night photographing neon signs.
Many of the signs that I photographed were what I would consider a form of folk art. And if they were going to disappear then I wanted to get a photograph of them. Five years ago, I attended a wedding in Las Vegas and visited the Neon Museum boneyard which is like a neon graveyard. I looked at all the ghost signs around me and realized how many neon signs had disappeared. I drove around Las Vegas that night looking to photograph some of the remaining signs and there just wasn’t very many so that is when the idea for the neon road trip started.
Did you research to find the signs, or did you find them by driving?
I did both, there are a lot of sites on the internet that are devoted to signs and neon signs in particular so I spent a lot time doing research that way and there are a number of great books for sale devoted to neon. But I also spent a great deal of time driving around looking for signs.
Whenever possible I would scout a sign location during the day, try and find out if the sign worked and what time did they turn it on. There were a number of signs that I revisited multiple times before getting a photograph.
What were some of your favorite signs you discovered?
The Smilin Buddha Cabaret which is part of an exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver is a favorite, the Swan Dive in Austin, TX is another, and the Mint Bar in Sheridan, WY. The Kitsap Lake Drive-in sign in Seattle, WA is probably the most amazing sign I saw, and I think it belongs in the Smithsonian.
Where are some of the best places you found to view neon signs?
There are pockets around the US and Canada where you can easily see a number of beautiful signs that are still working. Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Nashville, and Memphis are all cities where you can see a lot of neon with many of the signs within walking distance of each other.
The Neon Museum in Las Vegas, The American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, CA, The Museum of Vancouver, and the National Neon Sign Museum in The Dalles, OR all have really good collections to see.
Did you discover anything new about neon signs from the trip? Did you find any recurring themes?
One thing I discovered was there are a lot more people interested in neon signs out there than I thought. And many of the cities that had once banned neon are now scrambling to rescue and restore their local neon signs before they disappear because they have come to realize that these signs are part of our cultural heritage. There are a number of recurring themes: Cowboys and Indians, Diving Ladies, all kinds of animals and theatre marquees are some of the themes that you see.
Do you have any memorable stories from the trip?
Seeing and photographing the Kitsap Lake Drive-in sign was probably the most memorable experience for me. This is an extremely large sign that was miraculously rescued and restored. It is so large, they had to cut away the roof of the building and lower it inside with a crane and then repair the roof. It took me a while to track down the owner.
He was very gracious, he pretty much allowed me all the time I needed to photograph his sign and it is pretty incredible to see, just stunning. I have gone into some pretty iffy neighborhoods at night with a lot of expensive camera equipment alone and never once was I threatened.
When I am photographing signs, quite often people stop and talk to me about what I am doing and almost universally they suggest a particular sign that I should go see. So meeting all the amazing people was a great experience.