This Week: Lost America

Far off in the deserts of the west, alone and slowly disintegrating, are lost fragments of the American dream: drive-in theaters, diners, gas stations, casinos, airliners from the golden age of jet travel. They were once icons of roadside culture, used by thousands who considered them indispensable for modern living. Now they sit abandoned and mostly forgotten, awaiting stray visitors. One of these visitors is Troy Paiva, a freelance illustrator and designer who lives in the San Francisco Bay area. Every so often, he'll pack his film camera, jump into his car, and head out to the deserts of California and Nevada, prospecting for discarded Americana. He photographs these cultural artifacts in striking night shots that eerily capture their ghostly remains. He's posted many of these shoots on his website, Lost America, and will soon be the author of a published book of the same name. Beyond creating artful photos, Paiva is also recording these icons for posterity–many have been demolished after his photo expeditions.


What is "Lost America" all about?

It's my night-photography record of the fading American roadside. I love the spirit-cleansing loneliness of the road and had always looked for a way to document it. It truly is a labor of love.

How did these ghost towns and fragments of the American Dream
come to be the way they are?

Time marches on. Fads come and go. Mine towns play out. Roads get bypassed and towns die. Fact is, pretty much everything built on the American roadside isn't designed to last more than 25 years anyway. In the cities, the high land values mean that old worn-out places are quickly torn down and replaced with new disposable architecture. But in rural areas, they just stand strangely monolithic, like the pyramids.

How did you first discover them?

As a teenager, before I even had my driver's license, my older friends and I would take two- or three-day drives into the remote Nevada and Southern California deserts. Driving in shifts, around the clock, it was easy to travel thousands of miles in a few days. I loved the night shift, watching the ghost world unreel in my windshield like some pulpy Stephen King story. I've always been drawn to the dead places along the wayside. They are everywhere. Honestly, if you get off the Interstates, you can't miss it. The abandoned is all around us, but most people don't see it. People e-mail me all the time saying "I'd love to photograph stuff like you do, but there's nothing like that around here." But if you look, you can find abandoned stuff everywhere. It's what Americans do: throw stuff away.

What is it about these places that fascinates you?

Yeah, that's the real question, isn't it? Why are so many of us attracted to the lost and abandoned parts of our culture? Why do so many guys love poking around in junkyards? It's simply a sense of historical curiosity with some people, but for many others, it puts them in touch with their mortality, their sense of impermanence. These places and objects are the ghosts of our everyday world. It's odd to see stuff you know as second nature wrecked and abandoned. It's emotionally jarring and it really gives you a sense of just how fragile our modern world really is.

At night, when I photograph these places, you can cut the atmosphere with a knife. Take the feelings you get during the day and multiply them by 10. It makes every sense come alive. I swear, you can feel the souls of the machines whispering in the wind. What else am I gonna do at night anyway, watch sitcoms?

Are there lessons to be learned from this cultural detritus?

Life is short. Nothing lasts forever, so make the best of it.

Why did you decide to start photographing them?

When I first started photographing these locations by day in the mid-'80s, there were no books on Route 66 and the whole roadside ghost-town phenomenon. Plenty on the "Old West" ghost towns, but nothing on the car culture of the second half of the 20th century. So it seemed like an important thing to do.

Now, of course, the market is saturated with all the Margolies and Witzel Route 66 books. When you throw all the serious amateur images on the Web on top of that, there are more pics of Tee-Pee motels and rusty gas pumps than anyone could ever want to look at.

Right about the time I discovered night photography, these first books were coming out. I instantly realized that this was the perfect look to capture the essence of these dead places. It showed this shadow world in a way that no one else had done.

Being a digital artist for a living, the other big attraction to the technique for me is that it's not digital in any way. Everything is done on the film in the camera at the scene.

My night shooting technique is as old as photography itself, yet it's quite uncommon because it takes a lot of practice and dedication. It's work. There aren't many people who are willing to sit alone in a spooky place in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night making 8-minute exposures. It's just not what normal people do.

How do you find the sites? Do people send you tips?

I normally find them on my own, just driving around in the desert. Remember, this all started in the '70s with me driving into the desert, a few thousand miles in just a few days without a camera, just for the hell of it. If someone told me I couldn't take pictures anymore, I'd still go on the trips. I have piles of maps with all sorts of notes and squiggles on them saved up for future trips. That said, many people have sent me locations, some of which have paid big dividends–so please, keep them coming!

Which site moved you the most?

Probably the Mojave airliner graveyard. You just couldn't find anything that was more of a marvel than the first generation of jet airliners. They revolutionized travel and made the world a small place. To see them relegated to the shredder, torn into piles of scrap is a sad sight indeed.

Are there sites still on your to-do list?

Oh yes, more than I could shoot in a lifetime. I could list 20 locations for you right now without even thinking hard. Almost every location or object on my website is now gone, bulldozed, burned down or dragged to the smelter, so the real problem for me is that nothing stays as it is for very long. One trip you say, "Wow, I better get back here and shoot that gas station on my next trip," only to find a vacant lot next time by. New stuff is constantly appearing and things are always changing. I've noticed how the abandoned cars have evolved since I first started doing this. In the '80s it was big '60s Detroit iron, today it's mainly plastic cars from the '80s. I should be finding my first SUV soon…

I understand that every Texas Panhandle town has an abandoned drive-in and I've never been through there! I plan to head that way this spring.

Are ghost towns and abandoned complexes still being created today,
or were they the result of a specific time period?

Yes, they are constantly evolving. As more modern buildings and machines reach the end of their operational lifetimes, I will be happy to shoot them. There is a waterslide park east of Barstow, CA on Interstate 15 that was built not too many years ago. I remember when I first saw it I thought, "Someday that'll be abandoned and make a great shoot." Someday has arrived: I noticed it was abandoned on my last trip. I do think, however, that the '50s and '60s buildings, especially Googie stuff, makes for much more compelling imagery than the cinderblock and stucco strip-malls of the '70s and '80s.

Why did you start the Lost America website?

I was taking these pictures for 10 years and only my close friends, family and co-workers knew about it. I had amassed this huge body of work (I have 1000s of night shots filed away) and in 1998 I built the Lost America 1.0 site mainly to teach myself HTML. I quickly began to get a surprising amount of traffic, so I added more images and built a fun interactive site using my graphic design and illustration skills. It's snowballed from there. It's shocking to think that I will release a book in a couple of months by a major publisher when only four years ago virtually no one knew I was doing this. I must be dreaming.

How have people reacted to the website?
What kinds of things have they written to you?

I get lots of e-mail every day, mostly quick notes or remembrances jarred loose by the images. Many people want more insight into my technique, which I am very free with–just read my "How To" page first, as it'll answer most of your questions. Some people send long stories about what the work means. I love these, because every one is different. Some say it brings the places back to life, others say it’s a juxtaposition of the dead world with a "Day-of-the-Dead" party atmosphere, like we’re thumbing our noses at the inevitable dirt nap that awaits us all. I love that everyone has a different opinion and the last thing I would do is to say it’s one specific thing when it’s really anything the viewer wants it to be. For me, it’s all those things and more! That’s why I love doing it so much.

What's your book going to be like? When's it coming out?

It's due in stores in June. Motorbooks International is the publisher and with MBI's massive distribution, it will be widely available in the U.S. and abroad. Check your local Barnes and Noble, Amazon or MBI's website. It will be a 128-page, 9x9" soft-cover, mass-market paperback retailing for $20. Cheap! Buy two!

My editor insisted on having me write for the project, so there are 12,000 words accompanying the approximately 150 photos with chapters covering the Salton Sea, junkyards and the rise and fall of the drive-in culture in America. Never having been a writer before, I puzzled and sweated over the writing like a dog. A preview of the introductory chapter, "Where the Lanes are Wide," can be found on my website page, "The Story."

I realize that I mentioned all the other roadside books that have come out in the last 20 years, but what I've put together is unlike any other roadside photo book you've ever seen. This is not a happy-go-lucky "Gee, wasn't that a time!?!" sort of nostalgia book. My book won't be for everyone, but I have a feeling that if you like it you will really like it.


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