By Ryan Flanagan
Kitchener Post staff
While driving from the Niagara region to Rosthern, Sask., Mark Neufeld was struck with an unusual idea.
“The inspiration was when I moved my brother out west,” he said.
“The only thing to look at is out the window. As we were driving, we saw motel after motel after motel.”
As the brothers traversed the Trans-Canada Highway (“It’s like the Route 66 of Canada,” says Neufeld), it occurred to him that these motels told the story of the highway better than anything else.
So this spring, he packed up a car and headed back to Rosthern to visit his brother — but he also brought a Polaroid camera and a determination to photograph every motel along the route.
He set some ground rules. He could take only one picture of each motel, he’d have his car in the shot, and he’d write the name of the motel as a caption on the bottom of the picture.
“It gives the motel a sense of identity by naming it, rather than have it appear as a generic thing,” he said. “It becomes a character.”
In that case, the first character was the Dream Inn in Callander, just south of North Bay.
“It really is this nice, serial picture,” said Neufeld, adding that he’s OK with the picture having exposure issues because thanks to them “the photo echoes the name.”
Between Callander and Rosthern, he took 85 photos of 85 different motels. This month, the 85 original Polaroids — and 13 blown up to fit on a wall — are on display in the City Hall rotunda gallery.
As an added bonus, the path of the actual route Neufeld drove along the Trans-Canada is overlaid on the 13, providing a stronger connection between the photos and his journey.
Some of the other characters in the prominent 13 include the Dorion Inn outside Thunder Bay, which burned down in 2009, and a boarded-up, nameless hotel from somewhere Neufeld only remembers as “past Wawa.”
Neufeld, who lives in Kitchener and works at the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Extended Learning as an instructional digital media developer, says that he started the trip with a hypothesis that this type of motel was slowly edging closer and closer to extinction, due to hotel chains with standardized accommodations and recognizable names.
But he no longer believes that to be entirely the case.
“I don’t think it’s as severe as I originally believed it to be,” he said.
“There are motels that are functioning, that are supporting business, but there are also ones that are real characters with strong personalities.”
Instead, he now thinks, his perception of motels as dying might owe more to his predominantly-urban lifestyle.
“I don’t think we’re exposed to motels in this urban environment,” he said. “It’s not something you encounter unless you are on the road.”
He did see some that were dying or dead, though, including the aforementioned abandoned motel near Wawa.
Most often, these motels were found in small towns, where they symbolized the fate of the town.
“The small towns are really fascinating,” said Neufeld.
“A lot of them depend on the industry in the area. If that goes away, then the motels suffer as well.”
What is true is that most of the motels Neufeld saw have been around for decades, often with the same ownership.
When new motels are built, it’s often with a major corporate brand behind it, such as a Super 8 beginning construction in Goderich this summer.
“I went out there assuming that the motel is dying,” said Neufeld.
“I don’t think that’s necessarily true anymore. There are some that are prospering and offering more updated services.”
The technology was another key component of the project.
Neufeld often shoots with digital cameras, and says the use of the Polaroid was a conscious choice.
“You can just imagine in the ’70s or ’80s when the Polaroid was at its peak, that families would go to a place like this and would document the road trip on Polaroids,” he said.