Most of us speed past a unique form of American architecture – distinctive local rest areas. Photographer Ryann Ford makes these wayside wonders the final destination in a forthcoming book, The Last Stop. Pull over and enjoy the view.
Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your background.
Ryann Ford: I grew up in the mountains of Southern California, a very small town of about 6,000 people named Running Springs, near Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear. I always enjoyed photography growing up and finally took my first class in high school. Even then I loved exploring and shooting forgotten and lonely places. After graduation I attended Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, and decided to specialize in architecture.
DY: Where do you live now?
RF: Austin, Texas.
DY: Tell us about the Last Stop project. What drew you to photographing rest stops? What’s compelling about them to you?
RF: The Last Stop is a photography project documenting the vanishing roadside rest areas of America’s highways. Shortly after moving to Austin from California, I would get sent out on assignment by Texas Monthly magazine, and often had to drive all over Texas. I started noticing these cute little roadside tables along the different highways. We had the giant interstate rest areas in California, but it wasn’t until living here that I really started to notice rest areas. I noticed that a lot of them looked really old, some had cool mid-century architecture, some were really quirky, like they were shaped like a teepee or an oil derrick, or had a theme to them depending on the region we were in. One night I decided to Google “rest areas” to see what they looked like in other areas of the country. I came across a news article detailing the closure of many of them due to budget cuts, and they weren’t just being closed, but demolished. I had considered doing a photo project on them before, but this was the deciding factor.
DY: Why do you think preserving these stops is important?
RF: Even though I think it’s inevitable that these stops will ultimately be lost, I think it so very important to document the remaining ones before they are gone forever. When interstate highways were first built, passing up many small towns, rest stops were a way to reconnect people to the places they were traveling though. They gave small towns a chance to show their cultural significance. Rest areas have become relics of America's roadside past. These sites not only illustrate a unique period in the American travel experience, but are significant for the architectural forms found within them.
DY: What was the process like of finding your locations?
RF: Before heading out on a photo trip, I use Google Images to find various people’s snapshots of rest areas all over the country. When I find one that looks really unique or fun, I do a little research and then set out to find it. I usually plot a weeklong trip around a few great ones that I’ve found online, and then end up finding lots more along the way. Since almost no two are the same, the anticipation of what the next one down the road will look like is really fun.
DY: No people or animals appear in these photos. Why did you make that choice?
RF: I didn’t want the images to be a photojournalistic study of the various stops, but instead a portrait of the architectural forms, and the landscape surrounding. I purposefully shot them all at the same angle so that the series would be a true study of these stops. I definitely would have been ok with having animals in the shots, as I think that would have shown how nature has started to take back the land at many of these stops since they are hardly used anymore.
DY: Do you think growing up in a small town gives you a unique perspective about these spaces, or influences your photography in general?
RF: Yes, I think where I grew up influences my photography a lot. I appreciate nature and wild places, and I love the peace and quiet of rural areas. I’ve never been much of an urban person.
DY: Do you think of rest stops as rural places? Would you consider this rural photography?
RF: Yes, most of the stops are very rural. Rarely do you find stops in urban areas. Over the years as the cities and towns expanded, a lot of the stops that were close to civilization were closed because they just weren’t needed anymore because of all the commercial options. Yes, I think this series is a great example of rural photography.
DY: You’re using Kickstarter to raise funds to publish a book of The Last Stop collection. Why did you decide to raise funds this way?
RF: Publishing a book is an enormous undertaking, and to have success, it’s essential that you have a very large support system around you. Kickstarter is a great way to rally a fan base and build hype for the book before it’s even released. It’s a great tool that helps you gauge interest in the project, pre-sell books, get press, etc. It has an extremely large audience, so you’re able to show your project to people all over the globe.