Months removed from the peak season of tourist arrivals, photographer Mark Havens found a place that still “contains a national treasure: the highest concentration of mid-century modern hospitality architecture in the United States,” as Havens tells Lens Culture. Set in an isolated part of New Jersey, the working-class town of Wildwood provides a generous setting to document the sentimental remains of memorable summers, showcased through its throwback and classic architecture details, as it currently fights off the cruel effects of modernity that has seen half of its nostalgic motels and restaurants losing ground to demolition. “For those that remain, the future is in doubt” concludes Havens for these charming establishments which he perfectly documented in his “Out of Season” series. Summoning a time wherein nostalgia and seclusion conspires to give the place a different vibe, his images sends off a message that will hopefully reach the powers they be, about the importance of preserving Wildwood’s known heritage and architecture. To learn more about the series, Resource Magazine reached out to Mark Havens for a brief interview.
How did the idea for “Out of Season” came about? What made you choose Wildwood as the main setting of the series?
My Grandmother started going to Wildwood for the day when she was a little girl in the late 1930s. My family began going there on vacation with my Grandparents for one week every summer beginning in 1971 and it started to grow. I was very blessed, for many years we had four generations of our family there all at once. This summer will be our 44th year in a row in Wildwood as a family. It’s still a very special time for us all. Because I grew up with these motels as the backdrop of my summer for as long as I could remember, they seemed as immovable as mountains to me. But when they began to be demolished en masse I realized that they were something that I needed to capture before they disappeared. That was ten years ago
What fascinating discoveries did you make while doing this series?
For me, the most important discovery was photography itself. When I first started the project, I didn’t know anything about making photographs and wasn’t interested in learning. The project actually began when I paid a professional photographer to come to Wildwood with me and shoot some images of the motels. The results were fine, but they really weren’t what I was picturing. So I reluctantly bought my own camera – a used 35mm Nikon from a shop called Happy Photo. And I began to learn. I started by photographing several motels during the peak of the tourist season. But I soon realized that even a single parked vehicle obscured much of the motel architecture. I then tried photographing in the off-season but then the motels were fully closed-up and dark, almost feature-less. I eventually figured out that there were only two very small windows of time when I could capture the images that I envisioned: at the very beginning and at the very end of the tourist season. Only then were the lights on, the pools full, the chairs and plastic palm trees out, yet no one was around. It’s one of the reasons that the series took so long to complete. I started shooting in 2003 right as the “condo boom” was hitting its full stride in Wildwood.
The demolitions were much more frequent then. Each time I would take a trip to the town it seemed like I was greeted with new dirt lots where motels had been just a few days before. It was a very difficult circumstance to learn in — a little like trying to learn how to be a doctor by working in an Emergency Room. There was absolutely no room for error. If I got it wrong, there was very little chance I’d get to try again. The motels were disappearing that fast. I remember an number of occasions during that time when I’d photograph a motel, but get some part of the process wrong and not get any usable images. I’d return to try again only to find that the motel had been demolished. For a time, it seemed like the more I shot, the faster the motels seemed to fall. A couple of times I was literally shooting the front of a motel while workers were demolishing the back. The deserted nature of the photographs started as a practical measure but very quickly turned into a primary component of the artistic statement that I was trying to make with the project.
Once I began to shoot photographs that were devoid of people or activity of any kind, I realized that the isolation actually clarified the bold architectural forms and, more importantly, served as an analogue of the larger situation. Many of these buildings are empty not simply because the summer is over, but because we as a culture have moved on. A number of the motels were photographed at the end of their last season, just prior to demolition. Though the lights were still on and pools still full, there would be no more guests, no more summers. The season was over forever. The series is an attempt to bring out the interplay of an idealized past and its inexorable disappearance. People inhabit both of these images only by inference and allusion; and in many ways, it’s this physical absence from which the work draws its strength. Impressions are made at a more elemental depth, below explicit communication, echoing that most universal of all human experiences: the inexorable passage of time what is left behind in its wake.
Tell us the process of shooting these images?
Aside from the steep learning curve with photography itself, the staging of each shot was the main challenge for me. The edges of the off season in Wildwood are a strange time. It truly is a ghost town then. Many motels don’t have set opening dates or closing dates. They open whenever the owner finishes setting everything up for the season and close whenever people stop coming. So scheduling was always a challenge. Moving cars out of parking lots and turning on all the signage and lights were the most important factors in getting the images I wanted and for both of those I needed to work with the motel’s owners. Most of the time I’d approach the owner in advance, show them my work, explain what I was doing, and try and set up a time to shoot. Most were amenable if not a little ambivalent. If I could convince them to move their cars and keep their lights on for a few extra hours one evening, everything was good. Getting the owner to help with the lights was really a key thing since in order to save maintenance costs on their neon signs, almost every motel had them set to automatically shut off at a certain time of night. Sometimes the time was different depending if it was a weekday or weekend.
I remember I learned this the hard way at the Satellite Motel – one of Wildwood’s most distinctive. The sign and the roof peak at night were something I really wanted. So the evening I shot the motel I saved several rolls of film to make sure I could get lots of sign shots. It took me a long while to shoot the rest of the motel and then I remember thinking: “OK, now I’m gonna get that sign.” I’d just gotten my shot set up when—poof—out go the lights. I remember standing there with my mouth hanging open and looking around like someone was playing a practical joke or something. The whole motel was dark, the parking lot empty, nobody around to even ask to turn the sign back on. That half roll of film was all I ever got of the lit sign because, sadly, a couple of days later it was demolished. The motels where I wasn’t able to get in touch with the owners or where they weren’t interested in helping were difficult. There was lots of trial and error and many trips to the island where I came away with nothing at all. Sometimes I’d make arrangements with an owner to shoot on a particular day or evening only to find the motel closed down, dark and deserted. Sometimes a motel would be fully lit but inexplicably a car would be parked in the middle of the parking lot and no one would be around. I’d just have to go home. So persevering was key. As far as specific technique goes, I didn’t use any lighting on the project, it’s all whatever light was available right then. This made for some pretty long exposure times especially with the dusk and night shots.
I noticed that most establishments in the series has this retro or throwback architecture, how important it is for America to retain this architecture design?
I believe it’s incredibly important. The architecture is a perfect distillation of the energy and post-war optimism of the 1950s. In other places, much of what was built then is gone now. But Wildwood is incredibly unique – through an unlikely combination of economics, geography, and chance, its motels remained virtually unchanged – frozen in time – for over 50 years. The short 3-month tourist season combined with Wildwood’s blue collar reputation resulted in a national treasure: the highest concentration of mid-century modern motels in America. Just as important as these structures themselves is what they represent. Architecture critic Joseph Giovannini states: “Wildwood’s motels can and should be interpreted as a progressive mid-century movement pivoting Modernism to a next stage, opening it to a wider audience by diversifying and broadening its subject matter. The unique circumstances of Wildwood made it a petri-dish of architectural experimentation, providing a culture and context in which Modernism could mutate. This mid-century modern city on the Jersey shore marks a high moment in American commercial architecture, when in what seems like a process of spontaneous combustion, developers gave industrial Modernism imagery, narrative and new direction.”
What camera gears you used during the shoot of this series?
I progressed through a number of formats during the course of the project. I started with a used Nikon 6006 35mm film camera. After a couple of years I progressed to a Mamiya 645 medium-format setup. By the time I started to know my way around that, digital photography had arrived in a big way and I made the switch to a Canon 5D Mark 1 and then a Mark 2. All the time I was learning how to photograph, developing and refining my technique. The project now consists of over 13,000 exposures.
Lastly, tell us your upcoming photography series plans?
I’m just starting work on a more character-driven project. There’s much more authorship on my part compared to any other project I’ve done. It’s a whole new way of working for me and it’s terrifying because I have no idea where it’ll end up, but that’s also the fun part.
To see more of Mark Havens’ work, check out his Website. To be considered for Photographer of the Day, follow us on Instagram @resourcemag and e-mail submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “POTD Submission.”