Former ‘Fight Club’ camera assistant left the industry to photograph vintage neon signs

Lisa Guerriero quit her job working on the set of top-tier productions like Fight Club and Mad Men so that she could continue a lifelong project of photographing America’s neon signs. Now, thanks in large part to social media, her project can be viewed from around the world.

Guerriero began photographing neon 27 years ago, and has since traveled the country, traversing its biggest cities and smallest towns to document this once-booming art form. She grew up surrounded by the neon lights of Hollywood Boulevard, and said her love for vintage began with the signage found at the 1950’s motels her family stayed at during her father’s bowling career. 

Lisa Guerriero

“My dad would always get excited to go to the motels to get Cola in a glass bottle because it tasted better,” Guerriero said in an interview with the Daily Dot. “And my mom would collect all of the matchbooks from every place we used to go to.”

Her photos encapsulate the decades of mid-20th-century America, much like the photographer’s own lifestyle. The former camera assistant, whose family immigrated from Italy to the U.S. via Canada, currently lives in a 1950’s bungalow with vintage furniture, no television, and she signs off her emails with “sent from my Atari 2600.” Her first car was a 1967 Ford Mustang, and her first job in a Los Angeles memorabilia store.

“I really love this stuff, I really live and breathe it. Then I ended up getting a job with Mad Men, so I was living vintage stuff for seven years. Things aren’t made the way they used to be, when things lasted a long time. Back then it was a craft to build a neon sign. It took skill, the designs were beautiful, it became a part of the environment. Now I just feel like places want the loudest, least expensive plastic sign they have.”

The artist’s neon sign project started in the mid 90’s when Guerriero noticed many of her favorite places began closing down. She grabbed her 35mm camera and started taking pictures of the signs that once lit up the night sky with color before they were demolished. 

Ships Coffee Shop

“There was a place in Los Angeles called Ships, it was one of my favorite goofy diners, and in 1995 it ended up closing. So I went and starting taking a bunch of pictures. That was around the time a lot of buildings were being torn down, so I decided to document these signs by myself.” 

Guerriero’s neon sign project was originally a personal hobby, and wasn’t intended for anyone to see. But even someone seemingly born in the wrong decade has found use in today’s social media. She has now posted 1,778 images from all of her projects to her thousands of followers on Instagram.

“My first use of social media was with Flickr, but moved to Instagram where I found that people were generally friendlier and tended to interacted with each other more. Social media is a great way for me to show off my work, and I have met several friends through Instagram.”

Guerriero’s work extends much further than the documentation of neon signs. Her portfolio is a snapshot into the life of working class America, the gentrification of low-income neighborhoods, and the documentation of an “Americana” lifestyle that has been dwindling for decades. She has traveled the country taking photographs of old signage, mom-and-pop shops, and the endless personalities that live within, because “those are the types of people I like to talk to.”

“I met this man in Cincinnati. I had stopped to take a photo of a hand painted sign when this guy at a yard sale comes up to me,” Guerriero said. “He was born and raised in Cinci, had never left, and lived in the same neighborhood his whole life. He was having a tough time, his 16 year old just got diagnosed with brain cancer, and his 21 year old just got married. He was doing everything he could to get money: his yard sale, working at a BBQ joint down the street, and a few other jobs. Eventually, he pulls out his phone and shows me photos of his daughter. Shows me photos of her and her partner, and her partner was a woman. He said his daughter married her best friend. He said ‘You know this marrying same sex thing is all new to me, but you know what, I’ll love my daughter no matter what.’ It was amazing. This really simple guy who has never left his home town, and the fact that he never really dealt with the gay community before, and now he is faced with it, but it was so sweet that he was going to embrace it no matter what. He probably never even met a gay person before.”

The photographer’s goal is to compiling her neon sign images into a book, but meeting that end wouldn’t stop her from continuing the project into the future. 

“I feel like I pick up the camera no matter where I go. I think this will be an ongoing project, and even when I get to the point where I want to sit down to compile the images and make the book I still feel that I will be photographing neon, even if no one is going to see the images. I am still going to want to see them myself.”

Guerriero’s work can be found on Instagram as well as her website