(Editor's note: This interview originally aired May 23, 2019)
In the early days of tourism in Las Vegas, a central feature of the city was its motels.
By the 1990s, many of those motels were still operating—but in need of repair and renewal.
That’s about the time historian and photographer Fred Sigman was commissioned by a New York art dealer to document classic Las Vegas motels for a gallery exhibition.
Now some of those photos are in a new book, “Motel Vegas.”
Sigman said the art dealer, Ivan Karp, was a gambler who frequented Fremon Street and knew the signs and motels would eventually be taken down.
Karp wanted Sigman to focus exclusively on the remarkable neon signs but Sigman had a different idea.
“It was my approach in the photography that also called attention to the swimming pools, the rooms, the streets in front, that kind of thing,” he told KNPR's State of Nevada.
Sigman felt that just photographing the signs would isolate them from how the motel functioned. He believes art should be since in context.
“I lived here for so many years these were parts of the community I travel through all the time,” he said.
Sigman moved to Las Vegas to live with his father and go to high school. He remembers being intrigued by the lights of the city as he drove in for the first time.
Since then, he has lived here off and on through the years. In the 90s, he returned to teach at UNLV and ended up photographing many interiors of hotels and casinos.
Not long after that, he was asked by Karp to photograph the motels that were slowly disappearing.
“As I began to photograph in the project, and I would meet motel managers and other people to get permission on the project, that’s when I began to feel their own anxieties," he said, "The people who lived there. The people who owned them. The people who worked in these places. They were feeling quite anxious even then that these places were going away.”
Many motels along Fremont Street, the Strip, and Boulder Highway have been shuttered or bulldozed, which is something Sigman sees as a loss to the community.
“When we lose a motel in this town, it’s bulldozed or whatever happens, we’ve lost the experience of a motel,” he said.
He would like to see the places that are still standing preserved but not as T-shirt shops, instead, he hopes they are restored as actual motels.
“I support anything, within certain limits, that attempts to maintain the structures," Sigman said, "If they can’t restore them and they can’t renovate them at least maintain them. Keep them there. That to me is very important.”
He never wants the day to come when people flip through his book and see a motel they wished they had preserved before it was destroyed.
Author talk and book signing
May 25 at 2 p.m.
Fred Sigman, photographer, art historian, author, "Motel Vegas"