Motels are one of the few distinct parts of Americana. There’s a reason they’re so often depicted in films — staying in them feels different than staying in a hotel chain. There’s a sense of silence, a melancholy, but important solitude. Pushing open the door of a motel room to reveal dingy light and slightly stale air, it feels like life is beginning.
Over ten years ago, while traveling across the U.S. by car, San Francisco-based photographer Saroyan Humphrey took his first photo of a motel television.
You know, the television is always there in motels. Watching the news or reruns while traveling can be comforting and I found the glow of the TV interesting — eerie and oddly soothing.
He decided to try some long exposures on film with his Hasselblad camera over the course of several minutes.
At first, it was mostly a way of documenting my travels and remembering some of the crappy places that I stayed in. Later, when I looked at the film, I was happy with the results and decided I should keep it going as a series.
No one stayed in these rooms with Saroyan. He was alone, which, for him, was an important aspect of this series.
That’s the part that makes it interesting. There’s that feeling of loneliness that I think helps create a mood that maybe could not have been achieved had I been traveling with others.
Saroyan likes to stay in places that are non-chains and have character. It always surprises him that no matter where the motel is located or how the room is situated, all motel rooms look about the same. But, he says, the walls have stories.
One thinks of the film trope of pulling into a mostly abandoned motel parking lot in an old Buick LeSabre and getting the single key with its hanging brass tag from the curious person at the front desk.
There’s an anonymity that comes with motels, the fleeting feeling of being nowhere and somewhere at the same time. Traveling by car can be a freeing experience, a way of letting go and losing all responsibility besides keeping the car running.
This invisible life, traveling by car from motel to motel, reminds Saroyan of the working title that director Nicholas Ray (“Rebel Without a Cause”) used for all his films: “I’m a Stranger Here Myself.”
Even though Saroyan chose to share the solitude of a motel room, it doesn’t feel as though one is looking at Saroyan’s personal solitude; rather, it transports the viewer to their own motel room. The necessary desolation and emptiness of aloneness call out — the room is the physical manifestation of Keats’ “negative capability.”
Everyone will see something different. It’s a blank slate. For me, I see another night in a motel where things seem cozy enough but it’s possible there is something else going on just outside the frame. That’s the part that is left up to the viewer and what makes the image a success, for me.
Saroyan tried the same approach in rooms with more modern flatscreen TVs but found that they don’t have the same effect.
It just doesn’t work for me. I don’t know that everyone has the same affinity for downtrodden motels, but I guess it’s the look of the past I like. If the walls could talk, right?
Saroyan’s series feels like an invitation to hop in the car and drive till the highway narrows and the landscape is unfamiliar. Drive till the sun fades and check in to a motel called Whispering Pines or Queenie’s Resort, turn that single key with its hanging brass tag in the lock on the door, and go find yourself on the other side.