Photographer Valerie Chiang's website may tell you she is based in Los Angeles, but at any given moment, you can find her behind the wheel, cruising through tiny desert towns.
"I'm drawn to these signs because of what they represented during the golden age of road travel: a home away from home."
Chiang is a skilled fashion photographer, but for the past year or so she's taken on the role of documentarian, traveling through the West to shoot The 35th Parallel. She follows a route full of history, but also full of kitschy road signs and classic motels straight out of another time. Some of the motels she shoots are now closed, some are still open for business, but all are the stuff our road-trip photography dreams are made of.
"I'm drawn to these signs because of what they represented during the golden age of road travel: a home away from home, a stop along the way to the destination," Chiang says. "But of course, a large part of what makes these signs attractive to anyone is their design." We agree: they're totally gorgeous.
Below, Chiang shares exclusive new photographs from "The 35th Parallel"—and her guide to an epic cross-country adventure.
Do: Set Some Physical Guidelines
"I'm photographing directly on the 35th parallel north, and strictly adhering to its boundaries—not a degree above or below the line! The Transcontinental Railroad, built in the 19th century, and Route 66 and Interstate 40, built in the 20th and 21st centuries, all closely follow this circle of latitude, so I was interested in how this path evolved."
Don't: Be Afraid to Throw Research Out the Window
"I do research an area by looking at maps and images online before I visit to find specific places to photograph. Whether I actually end up photographing them when I get to the destination is another story. Sometimes it works out just how I imagined, and sometimes it doesn't. But some of my favorite photos did happen by luck and just driving around and exploring."
Don't: Stay at the Cheapest Motel in Town
"The cheapest motel I've ever stayed at was in Barstow, California, at $32 a night, and I left the next morning with more than 40 flea bites. There are quite a few motels in the $25–$30 range, but if you want to avoid surprises, you should aim for something above $40 per night."
Do Build a Playlist Around the Landscape
"For the desert, I love listening to Duane Allman, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Barbara Dane. If I'm driving through mountains and forests, Townes Van Zandt. And for anywhere in the Midwest, definitely Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen."
Do: Look to the Legends of Road-Trip Photography
"Don't be afraid to imitate your favorite photographers when you're first starting out. It helped me develop my own voice by learning what it is I loved about other people's work and how I could use what inspired me to create something more original."
See more of Chiang's photographs at www.valeriechiang.net.