December 18, 2017
Born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, Nick Leonard at the age of 15, discovered a strong interest in photography and started to use it as a therapeutic outlet for him to be able to create things and clear his mind. He started shooting portraits which progressed into making images of friends around the city.
Now at age 24, Nick has been traveling documenting his travels for the past 7 years. He travels across the country capturing history in hopes that they will be documented in time before their inevitable doom. Capturing these relics with a variety of film cameras gives the images he captures a warm, nostalgic feeling to the subject but not only that, its a much more disciplined practice and approach that makes photographers respect the process of shooting overall.
Hey Nick, thanks for taking the time for this interview. Let’s start with some introductions shall we?
“My name is Nick Leonard and I’m 24 years old, born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada. While Vegas is still home base for me, for almost a year I have been living with a fellow photographer friend of mine out in Dallas, Texas. We’ve been collaborating on photo related projects, printing and the like as well as having many road trips while I’m in this part of the country.”
Are there any similarities between Las Vegas and Dallas?
“In some ways, yes. They both have a decent selection of signs that peek my interest, and intriguing architecture for that matter. Like Vegas, everything is at risk. A downside is that Dallas appears to not be preservation-minded as they should be.
I’ve read and heard from other local photographers in Dallas the things that have been lost to the wrecking ball and it’s truly a shame. Las Vegas and Dallas share a common love affair with the wrecking ball. While Vegas has saved some places and signs, the percentage is still so small compared to what has been thrown away and continues to this day. It would seem as though once something gets “saved,” you lose five others. I’ve been doing the best I can out here in Dallas to document historical places just like I’ve done in Las Vegas.”
What camera(s) do your normally use when you go shooting?
“I use a wide array of cameras these days. I enjoy being able to have a variety of film flavors to choose from while at locations. My favorites have been my Polaroid 250 & 450 Land Cameras. I enjoyed them with my final packs of Polaroid pack films and now am making the absolute most of them while I can with my remaining Fuji FP-100C film stash. My trusty Olympus OM-1 and OM-2 are always with me, one always having black and white film in it while the other goes through various slide films.
As far as my strong habit of using integral films go, I rely on my Polaroid SX-70 Sonar, SLR 680, and Spectra. I’m thrilled beyond belief with how far Impossible Project has come in their mission to keep Polaroid Integral film cameras alive. I’ve been supporting them since the beginning and am very proud to see where they are in terms of film quality these days as Polaroid Originals. For 120 films, I use the Fuji GW690 III and a Bronica ETRS. Finally, I have soft spot for my small point and shoot cameras. They consist of a Yashica T3/T4, Olympus Stylus Epic and a Pentax 110 Film camera.”
You shoot a lot of vintage signs in fear that they’ll disappear one day when you go back. Talk about why you’re attracted to these things.
“I believe my attraction to shooting these motels, older businesses, store fronts, and lone vintage signs started when I grew tired of making images of people. I always made my way around town using the CAT bus and seeing older places in a sea of modern mess fascinated me. I started taking a lot of solo trips specifically to our Main Street in downtown Las Vegas. At that time, I was 15 approaching 16, and looking back there were still a somewhat healthy amount of places that caught my eye. Many were motels that were closed with their time ticking with each passing day.
Growing up in Las Vegas, like so many others, I saw countless classic structures leave us by way of demolition usually resulting in nothing happening but an empty, fenced off dirt lot filled with weeds and trash. That continues strongly to this day. I like to say Las Vegas is just eating itself alive. Anything we have left from the “old days” is a blessing and almost all of it is in constant jeopardy with few places we can deem as “safe.” I wanted to aim my cameras at these signs, hand painted signs, old building and document them before the inevitable occurred.”
“I also think with the knowledge I had of Las Vegas, knowing what a mecca of signs the city once was, I wanted to document everything I could that was still hanging on. I collect chrome motel post cards as well. For me they provide a way to enjoy “what once was” as so many of them [the cards] are places that no longer exist. It’s also a delight to have post cards from motels and restaurants that are still with us to this day.
Making images of these signs inspired me to get involved with using Polaroid films. Another hobby I had was seeking out vintage cameras at thrift stores across the valley. I joined Flickr and found groups dedicated to people using Polaroid film. I jumped on just in the nick of time as Polaroid was pulling the plug on production of instant films. I was able to use a variety of their peel-apart films and integral films such as 600, Time-Zero and Spectra. Once I aimed my first Polaroid Sun 600 at a motel sign, I was hooked. The medium seemed perfect for my subject and I became obsessed.
At that time, I acquired as much Polaroid film as I could from various sites, usually eBay before prices got insane and before the film became heavily expired. I loved the look I was getting in my instant images of the historic places I was shooting. I quickly discovered The Impossible Project and became an instant supporter of their mission. Through Flickr, I also found the Film Photography Project and began listening to Mike Raso and his guests on their podcast discuss everything film related. At that point, I was shooting a variety of instant film cameras, but only had one or two simple 35mm cameras. Mike Raso kindly donated a Canon T50 to me and my interest with film grew to a whole new level. As many photographers say, film helped me slow way down. It was a breath of fresh air. I truly believe switching to film at that time benefited me as a photographer and the work I began to produce thereafter.”
When do you decide if a sign or place is to be taken at night versus taken in the daytime?
“I always try to shoot as much as I can during these trips during the daytime. When it comes to night, I will specifically shoot the signs I know to light up and take a lot of time at those locations. Often I’ll get quite inspired at certain properties that have multiple neon signs of shapes and sizes going on. With those I usually end up having fun making double or triple exposure images capturing multiple signs on one sheet of FP-100C film.
It’s a fun challenge to fit two or three signs that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to fit on one piece of film without doing multiple exposures due to the signs being in different spots around a property.”
On shooting the signs at night – do you try to be discreet when taking these photographs, do you ask for permission? I assume you use a tripod for the long exposures right?
“Generally I set up my tripod and get started especially if I am mainly shooting from public sidewalk. Some times if an owner of motel steps out, I’ll introduce myself and strike up a positive conversation with them usually praising their sign and property. Most of the time that goes over well and I can continue making images.”
I’ve wondered about a lot of photographers with the same fascination with old places and why a lot of us like to take photos of them. Do you think it’s because you wish you were living in that era?
“I think part of me wishes I could have lived in that era. I collect post cards, and with so many of them I wish I could just step into the scene and enjoy that moment in time. It’s crazy when you see a post card for a Main Street in any town and all the store fronts were decorated with signage for miles. Visiting that same Main Street today and you’d be lucky to find two signs still hanging on. On the other hand, yes, all of these places are aesthetically pleasing to me.
It’s like being able to document a slice of the past I wasn’t able to experience. Today, more than ever we are seeing cheap box buildings going up with no sense of design or uniqueness to them. If that’s not enough, they are being painted either wet cement gray, or shit brown. It’s as if all other paint color choices no longer exist. So there’s that issue and then there’s also the growing use of LED screens as main signs for businesses or cheap vinyl banners. It’s astonishing how many iconic signs we have lost to those cheap replacements.”
What’s been your favorite place or state, or sign to shoot so far, and why?
“I would have to say my favorite state as of lately to photograph in would be California. It’s so large! Every time I visit the greater Los Angeles area, I always find new places that interest me and leave without completing my maps that I create for all road trips. However, my life goal is to visit every state before I die and document what is of interest to me as far as vintage signs and the like go.
There are so many favorite signs I’ve shot so it’s extremely difficult to pick one.
I will say the Charcoal Oven that was in Oklahoma City stands out. Neon for days, a wrap around drive-thru surrounded by a lush garden of shrubs and flowers with an outdoor eating area in the center. The best part was the giant, out of this world neon sign that welcomed everyone. It was a paradise, to say the least… That being said, of course, it couldn’t exist. I first laid eyes and cameras on this eatery in 2015 during the day. On that particular road trip, we didn’t have a chance to view it at night as we had to get to the next city. Fast forward to August 2016 when news broke that the Charcoal Oven would be closing permanently the following month. I was back in Las Vegas at the time, filled with anger and quickly contacted my friend Tim out in Dallas.
To keep it brief, I was on a plane as soon as possible to Dallas. We then drove to OKC to enjoy the Charcoal Oven one last time and make our final images. An important goal was to photograph the property during the night time as the sign transforms into a different animal when the sun goes down. With a glorious variety of neon colors, it happened to be operating perfectly on both sides which nice and bittersweet at the same time. Despite public outcry about the closure, it went full steam ahead with closing. The next day the sign was dismantled safely by a sign company which has it stored in a warehouse. The building was later demolished for a pathetic Discount Tire and a piece of OKC history died. There’s small talk the sign may be displayed once again but only time will tell.”
Can you name some photographers who inspires your work? And are you going to make a book sometime in the future?
“There are so many photographers who inspire me each in different ways. Stephen Shore, Phil Donohue, Jason Lee, and William Eggleston just to name a few. Through Instagram, I have discovered many other photographers whose work I have become a big fan of.
It’s a fun platform to share my work on and communicate with others about photography. It reminds me of the early, good days of Flickr. I certainly am interested in putting together some books in the near future. I have a bunch of ideas of what I’d like to do. Having select prints for sale is also on the horizon.”
Nick, I’m excited to see more of what’s to come in the near future. Happy shooting!
“I appreciate that, Yung! Thank you kindly for the feature.”