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It’s impossible to not dream of setting off on a long road adventure while perusing the archives of the late John Margolies. Known for his photographs of America’s vernacular architecture, Margolies spent over three decades driving more than 100,000 miles with his eyes alert for strange sculptures, dynamic signs, and structures fast-disappearing from today’s landscape, from mom-and-pop shops to drive-in movie theaters. His journey culminated in the photo book, John Margolies: Roadside America, published in 2010, which presents a sweeping portrait of the nation through its roadside embellishments. While Robert Frank showed us the often aching realities of the United States in the 20th century, Margolies gifted us with all its weird and its wonderful.
And quite literally, too: in a generous gesture, he placed all his work in the public domain. Now, a little over a year after his death at the age of 76, the Library of Congress has digitized and uploaded the more than 11,000 color slides from his archives so they are more easily accessible. The effort is part of what curator Micah Messenheimer described to Hyperallergic as the Library’s “longstanding commitment to digitizing materials that exemplify American lives and experiences.”
Although largely devoid of people, the straightforward images of old gas stations, mini golf courses, and buildings shaped like the products they sell each speak to someone’s creativity, humor, and uninhibited imagination to make the landscape a little less boring. What a welcome given by the 44-foot-tall stucco snowman that stands along a Minnesota highway, with arms waving even in the middle of summer! And I can only imagine the joy of pulling up to Harold’s Auto Center in Florida, which for some reason takes the form of a lumpy, gray brontosaurus. It is nearly as cute as the pair of sized-up beagles that house Dog Bark Park Inn, a one-unit bed-and-breakfast in rural Idaho that welcomes visitors and their dogs for a comfy stay.
These structures, happily, still stand today. But countless others have been less lucky.
“Many of the subjects of Margolies’s photos are now gone, threatened, or radically altered,” Messenheimer said, highlighting the Atlantic City Boardwalk as a prime example of our built environment that has undergone dramatic transformation. You only have to spend a bit of time poking around on Google Maps to discover that many other gems Margolies observed are now gone, or have been repurposed into spaces for the 21st century. The Library has not yet conducted a comprehensive study of how many of these structures remain, but Margolies’ archive presents a prime opportunity to launch projects that will involve collaboration with its online community.
“The Library has long used Flickr to crowdsource improvements to our cataloging data, and our blog posts about the archive have already generated comments alerting us to misspelled towns and misplaced street names,” Messenheimer said. “We look forward to developing future programming around the collection such as then-and-now photo pairings or scavenger hunts to locate unidentified sites or provide new documentation of how these places have changed.”