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Photograph of a Dairy Queen chain fast food restaurant
A visual treat...that serves treats
Rolando Pujol

An Instagram That Captures a Bygone Americana

The Retrologist, aka photographer Rolando Pujol, travels the US to capture vintage vignettes before they're gone

Neil Patrick Harris is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Wondercade. In his spare time he also acts — fairly well, too, as his Tony and Emmy Awards can attest.

April 4, 2023 1:40 am

I absolutely adore almost anything vintage. Anything timeworn. Classic. I’d type this newsletter on a brass 19th-century typewriter, if I could. (Actually…who’s to say I don’t? Full disclosure: I don’t.) I don’t just love old things because they’re old, though — I love old things that emblemize a bygone era. That no time capsule would be complete without. That’s why The Retrologist is one of my favorite things on the internet right now: journalist / photographer / chronicler Rolando Pujol shares the same appreciation for antiquity that I do. Every post is a tribute to the iconic roadside architecture and signage that dot the U.S., beautifully photographed and written with deeply insightful, loving details. Rolando documents a disappearing Americana, and I’m so glad he does. I exchanged emails with him so we could talk about the magic he captures. And creates. 

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: Describe The Retrologist in one sentence. You can make liberal use of commas, ellipses and em-dashes to make it work.

ROLANDO PUJOL: The Retrologist is a curated yet whimsical adventure through the roadside American past, highlighting locales, many hidden or overlooked, that have wonderful stories to tell and are fascinating to admire, and that speak to me, and I hope, my readers — they are places that provoke a sense of wonder, joy and, of course, nostalgia.

Nice job. How’d you get started?

The roots of The Retrologist go back to my childhood when I was already admiring old diners, kitschy signs and quirky fast-food places from the backseat of my parents’ 1978 Ford Fairmont station wagon. A seminal event that revved up my interest was the closure of the Howard Johnson’s restaurant in New York City’s Times Square in 2005. That shook me, and the demise of the great McHale’s Pub nearby the next year only added to my sense of urgency that these places need to be documented and celebrated while they are still here. 

What makes for a great old-school sign or building?

It’s vital that the sign or building have a sense of place, meaning that they possess the beauty and intrigue that come from something that is a unique expression of a person, a trend, a locality or a moment in time. Part of that is patina. Places that have their original signs, or sensitively restored signs, are far more interesting to people than ones where the original sign has been replaced or restored in an inauthentic way. 

Of all the photos you’ve taken and posted on your account, what’s your favorite? Note: There can be only one. Like Highlander.

It’s a vintage Dairy Queen in Butler, Pennsylvania. I shot it after a light snowfall on Groundhog Day 2020 — 02/02/20. I had stayed the night before by chance in Room 220 at a nearby Hampton Inn. It just felt like a lucky day, and it was.

Gorilla statue holding up a car
See the treasures of the American roadside — on Instagram
Rolando Pujol

2 cool. Who writes your copy? It’s the sweetest, most earnest thing on the internet.

That is one of the nicest things anybody’s ever said about my work! I write every single word. I take tremendous pride in crafting the copy and consider it essential to the feeling you get from one of my posts. You can certainly thumb right past my captions and just enjoy the pictures, but you are missing the full experience if you don’t read the copy. I’m trying to appeal to readers’ minds and hearts, not just their eyes. 

What are your 3 tips for shooting great architecture photos?

  1. Natural light is your friend. I have two preferred time windows: the soft light of early morning (the first couple of hours after dawn) and then the final couple of hours of the day (especially the sweet light during the last half hour before sunset). 
  2. Try to get a clean shot of the object of your affection. I try to shoot storefronts and buildings devoid of cars and people milling about. I’ve sometimes waited hours for cars to leave.
  3. Anticipate how you plan to use the photo. Will it be a square on Instagram, or will you use it in an Instagram Reel or TikTok? Have you walked around the building in search of aspects you may have missed? Are there different perspectives you might consider?

What’s the best roadside dish you’ve ever had?

The sliders at the White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey. It’s also a gorgeous little building.

A timeless spot to grab fast food
Rolando Pujol

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen on the road?

A statue of a gigantic gorilla holding up a vintage Volkswagen Beetle. 

And who’s the most interesting character you’ve ever met while on the road?

The great Gary Turner, one of the legendary keepers of the Route 66 flame. He ran the historic Gary’s Gay Parita Sinclair Station in Ash Grove, Missouri, a requisite stop on the Mother Road because of his kindness and generosity, his gift for poetic storytelling. When I visited on a drizzly morning in June 2013, he told me that I was now part of a vast extended Route 66 family spanning generations, that it would always be part of me, that I would be back again and again. He was right. I took his death less than two years later very hard. 

America is full of people like Gary, people who care, who want to bring us together, not apart. We have more in common than we think, and I think part of what we can do to get past these difficult times is to get out there and talk to one another, in towns big and small. That’s why I love what I do so much. It gives me hope for humanity. On every trip, I find ample, unmistakable evidence of this beautiful thing called human decency. 

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