November 1, 2017

One Photographer's Quest to Capture Vintage Signs Across the Country

  • By: Nicholas Som
An exterior shot of the Holiday Motel neon sign.

photo by: Nick Leonard

The Holiday Motel in Las Vegas is expected to be redeveloped into a boutique hotel, putting its historic value in jeopardy.

Nick Leonard first picked up a camera at age 15—not to document the world around him, but to have better pictures of himself. He and his friends wandered their Las Vegas suburb, looking for cool new locations at which to shoot photographs of each other.

Soon, however, Leonard tired of simple portraits and craved different subjects. Through monthly get-togethers with other artists and photographers, he noticed that the many vintage signs scattered across downtown Las Vegas might fit the bill. And once he started photographing them, he found that he couldn’t stop.

Today, Leonard travels the country shooting old, interesting, and endangered signs, planning entire road trips around them and posting the results on his Instagram account, @nickleonardphoto.

“I [take photographs] with the strong goal in mind of documenting the places the best I can, because in so many cases these places are never [completely] safe,” says Leonard. “There's no guarantee they’ll be here the next time I return."

What matters to Leonard most about the places he chooses to capture? Vintage status and historical accuracy are the key criteria.

“I always try to [photograph places] that are true vintage, that have been there for a long time regardless of if they’ve had a name change,” says Leonard. “Then there’s authenticity—how true [to their former appearance] they still look today, and if they’re being maintained nicely.”

Leonard hopes to eventually visit every state in the country, recording for posterity the signs and places that most speak to him. And if his past work is any indication, the ones he selects will be some of the most fascinating each state has to offer.

“I am grateful to be able to share the places I see with the world. These motels, neon signs, and midcentury [works of] architecture are all important aspects of American culture that should not be forgotten,” Leonard says.

Here is a gallery of 14 of Leonard’s best photos for you to enjoy.

Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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