It’s important, on this Fourth of July, to remember that America can mean many different things to different people, but Americana – at least, when it comes to art – only means one thing: old school. It’s that neon-meets-Southwest look that takes you back to the 1950s to get your kicks on Route 66 in a pink Cadillac convertible with tail fins and whitewall tires. Americana is “Grease,” diners, jukeboxes and leather jackets, but it’s also weathered barns, general stores, big skies and the open road.
It’s a kitschy, homespun style that defined a generation, and as that generation passes on, it’s slowly fading away. Perhaps that’s why Carbondale photographer Martin Garfinkel felt compelled to start chronicling all the vintage Americana he could about 15-20 years ago. Or it could be that, as a biker, he heard the siren call of the empty stretches of highway that such an endeavor would entail.
Whatever the reason, after years spent photographing the bikers he met and the rallies they attended, back around the turn of the century Garfinkel turned his lens to the fading world of vintage Americana, a passion which led him to open the Roadside Gallery in its Main Street location in Carbondale a decade ago. Since then his photographs have had a place to stay put, but Garfinkel himself has remained quite mobile.
“On the motorcycle I’ve probably done a quarter of a million miles,” he said. “Because there were quite a few years where I just criss-crossed the country on a big touring bike. But between car and motorcycle, it’s probably about a half-million miles.”
As one might expect, Garfinkel has loads of stories from all that time spent on the road, including one about a close call at a biker rally in Sturgis, S.D., involving his friend Pigger, who rode a “gorgeous, restored antique Indian motorcycle.”
“As Pigger was getting ready to leave, he inadvertently knocked over the Harley next to him, which knocked over the one next to that, creating a domino effect of several motorcycles. None of them were damaged, just a few scrapes, but they happened to be owned by some not-so-understanding Hell’s Angels. Pigger was pretty nervous, so the group of 20 of us pitched in a couple thousand dollars to give to the bike owners so they wouldn't take revenge on Pigger.”
The results of all those miles in the saddle and behind the wheel are on display at the gallery (320 Main St.) from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. They can also be seen on the gallery’s website (roadsidegallery.com), where they’re sorted into collections like “Route 66,” “Abandoned” and “Vintage Signs.” Taken altogether, the photos paint a fascinating picture of a bygone era, but they’re far from the only ones Garfinkel has available.
“I’ve got 10,000 pictures of bikers,” he said, to go along with photos shot closer to home that are among his bestsellers.
“A lot of people are interested in local things like pictures of Mount Sopris,” said Garfinkel, “and there used to be an old wooden Carbondale sign just about where the roundabout is. I have an image of that and we put it on coasters, postcards and prints, and people love it.”
People may love it, but to Garfinkel, photos like that one stem from a more personal motive. They represent his own way of preserving the past and sharing it with others. It’s a sentiment that will come sharply into focus on Aug. 2, when the Roadside Gallery will be hosting a classic car show as part of Carbondale’s monthly First Friday promotion.
In addition to hosting the 25-35 vintage models that are expected to take part, Garfinkel will be making the rounds with the three models of the human kind dressed up in ’50s getups so they can shoot pictures sprawled across or otherwise interacting with the participants’ cars. There’ll be a couple in polka dots and another dressed up like Sandy from “Grease.”
It’s all part of Garfinkel’s commitment to make sure a colorful part of our nation’s history doesn’t get forgotten, and it’s a reason why if you love America – er, Americana – you’d be well served to roll on up to the Roadside.