Reno is a strange town. It has a river, a fledgling arts scene, and a lot of history. But mostly it has casinos. Behind the glitz and attempted glamour of the big-name casinos — El Dorado, Silver Legacy, Circus Circus, and Harrah’s — is a string of old motels, pawn shops, and other reminders of the city before the name brands came to town.
The Thunderbird is one of those motels.
It seems like every town has a Thunderbird. A quick Google search yield 43 million hits, with Thunderbird hospitality in Massachusetts, Alaska, Minnesota, Idaho, and Texas.
But Reno’s Thunderbird has neon. The retro sign shows its age in the unforgiving desert sun, but it’s glorious at night.
And night is when I saw the sign for the first time, visiting Reno with my gambling friend. All I remember was struggling to hold the camera high enough to capture the sign without including any distracting elements in the foreground. I was using my Holga, which shoots square negatives, so I ended up with the glowing sign in a field of black, a little piece of Circus Circus in the corner.
The next time I went to Reno, again with my gaming partner, I wandered along motel row one morning while the city was still asleep. Armed this time with both digital and film cameras, I made my way to the now-familiar Thunderbird and shot the sign by day.
I love those daylight shots, but that night-time image still resonates with viewers years later. The night shot recently won honorable mention at the Newton Art Association’s show at the Arsenal Center for the Arts. Here’s what juror William Pope had to say about the photo:
“This photograph does a great job combining the strength of the strong colors and lines of the thunderbird with just enough motion to give it a good dynamic quality. The bright colors against the black background combined with a slight amount of movement engage the viewer and make the image come alive in a very familiar but interesting way.”
By now I have shot that sign by day and by night, with film and digital. Details from the photos have found their way into multiple fridge magnets and I’ve listed one version of the photo on Etsy. A little obsessive? Maybe. But Monet had his haystacks and Warhol his soup cans. I have the Thunderbird. It’s enough for now.