In the mid-1970s, Toon Michiels made various journeys to the United States of America, where he undertook a number of road trips in a rented car to, among other plac- es, Reno and Las Vegas. Very quickly, Michiels developed a fascination for the spectacular neon signs that motels and restaurants had placed along the highways to lure passing drivers. Nothing like these existed in Europe. In the eyes of the visiting European they were the typical symbols of American car culture, icons that spoke of the freedom of being ‘on the road’ in the endless wide-open landscape of the American West. Their big letters must have seized Michiels’ attention immediately, as he was not only a pho- tographer but also a professional graphic designer. Wasn’t that the point of neon signs, with their playful graphic and architectural qualities and colourful lights—to seize attention? Michiels photographed them by day and by night in a rigid, systematic way: frontal view (almost as seen from an approaching car), placing them in the middle of the frame with just a bit of space around them—whatever size they might be. The series connects strongly with the typological work of the German photographers Bernd & Hilla Becher, but one may also see a parallel with the pre- WWII work of Walker Evans, who was equally fascinat- ed by text in photographs. Michiels photographed his anonymous sculptures in full colour, at a time when colour photography was hardly considered a serious art medium. This fact, in combination with its clarity and richness, makes this project stand out in the history of 20th century pho- tography. A selection of American Neon Signs by Day & Night was first published in 1980 by Drukkerij Rosbeek (a Dutch printing company) in the form of a spiral-bound booklet with fourteen fold-out pages, showing the day and night versions together.
Exhibition curators: Sam Stourdzé, in collaboration with Christien Bakx et Erik Kessels.
Texts: Frits Gierstberg, chief curator, Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam.
Exhibition coproduced by the Rencontres d'Arles and The Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam.
Exhibition realised with the support of The Mondriaan Fonds
Exhibition venue: église des Trinitaires.