Paul Costello’s America


Paul Costello is a master in capturing the eccentric, the spontaneous and the heartfelt. He elevates style to an art form and inspires those around him to tap into their most off-beat ways. This is where he finds true beauty. We are more than a little inspired by the New Orleans home he shares with his wife, the equally stylish Sara Ruffin Costello (you may know her as the former Creative Director of the late great Domino) and their three kids, Harrison, Kiki and Ruffin. But we are equally taken with the photos he shares of their life on the road. The Costellos know how to road trip. And so we checked in with Paul to mine his active mind on the high and mighty ways of the road. Here is Paul’s America.

 Do you mostly travel on assignment?

I travel all the time for work. But I also travel for pleasure as much as I can.


Do you go alone or with a crew?

I sometimes travel alone, but I much prefer to have some co-conspirators.


Do you camp?

I love to camp! Mostly car camping. We have a giant tent we call the Taj Mahal that has a removable roof so we can see the stars. I sometimes wilderness camp, but that requires a great deal more planning.

You see amazing things camping that you’d never see from a hotel room. For example, late one evening this past summer Sara and Ruffy and I were finishing a long drive through Nevada and needed a place to spend the night. We took a chance on campsight in Cathedral Gorge that we had spotted on Google maps. It was spectacularly sighted, with a 360 degree view of red rocks and desert. Minutes before the sun sunk below the horizon, we had our tent set up and a fire made with cedar wood which was cut by rangers for anyone to use. By the time we finished grilling, the stars were out. A surprise bonus was the proximity to “Area 51”, (aka Nellis Air Force base). There was very odd activity in the sky all night. It was amazing! It became obvious why the area has so many UFO sightings. When we asked a park ranger in the morning about all the strange lights in the sky he said, “Yup, if you’re here the first two weeks of the month, or the last two weeks of the month, they’ll be flying top secret aircraft out here.”

Hit roadside motels or go in higher style?

I could work in PR for the American Motel industry, if such a thing exists. I LOVE roadside motels! I HATE roadside hotels! WHY are motels so out of fashion!?! To pull my car up to my room is such an amazing luxury.

I also make a real point to avoid food and lodging with corporate affiliations. It’s not always possible because many independent motels cater to fairly unsavory activities. But when I can find a good one, I just love it. I’ve found that most places under $80 a night are best to steer clear of. In a pinch, Best Westerns are often rehabbed old motels.

Having said that, I of course love a high style place. I love great architecture and design but I have little interest in fancy resorts for more than a day or two.

What do you drive?

I have an amazing 1969 Ford Bronco, but if I’m being perfectly honest, I prefer to road trip in a minivan. So roomy. Great gas mileage. What’s not to love? I defy you to find a professional photographer who doesn’t love minivans!


What do you bring?

It varies trip to trip. As little stuff as I can get away with!


Road tripping is the stuff of American legend and has inspired countless movies, songs and novels. Talk to us about this lineage and what draws you to hit the road. And in what way does a road trip fuel your own work?

I grew up in California in the late 70’s and early 80’s the youngest of 3 boys. My brothers always had on the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, etc. My brain formed to songs like “Ramble On” and “Hotel California”. My favorite books were “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “Papillon”.

I guess the dye was cast for me from a young age. When I first started taking pictures I tried my best to channel Walker Evans.

There is no doubt that traveling and road tripping in particular provide endless inspiration. I have to assume it’s tied to the way our brains work. When we get out of our regular environments we open up new pathways.

My work is particularly location based and I’ve found that it’s critical for me to get out and recharge my creativity with travel.

Your work is so much about style and eccentricity. What do you look for when you’re in a new locale, exploring a new subculture?

I don’t love big crowds, so unless it’s the off-season, we’ll mostly skip the big marquee spots like Yellowstone or Yosemite or at least skip the crowds in these places.

I have a particular interest in seeing things that may not be around much longer. For example, a friend in San Antonio just brought me to the Toilet Seat Art museum. Barney Smith, a 96 year old retired plumber has made over 1300 pieces of art on toilet seats! The museum is in his garage, and he personally gives the tour. It’s absolutely amazing. Some of the best folk art I’ve ever seen. And there’s only so much time left to see it.

Nothing beats a friend who can point you to unique spots but there’s also the fun of heading out not knowing what you’re looking for. Also there are things I always search for along a route. Are there any natural hot springs? Swimming holes? Is there anything I can jump off of? A waterfall. A bridge.


And what have you found are the ties that bind us?

There are many ties that bind us. Probably at the top of the list the simple desire to connect with other people.

Do you have an all-time favorite trip?

Guatemala stands out. Sara and I went as a writer/photographer team to shoot a travel story, and with the help of a friend we were able to arrange a visit to El Mirador with the lead archeologist Dr. Richard D. Hansen. It was like hanging out with Indiana Jones. El Mirador Basin is a network of ancient interconnected Mayan cities the size of Los Angeles, all linked with elevated causeways. Dr. Hansen’s discoveries at El Mirador literally rewrote Mayan history and to see it with him was simply incredible.


When you go somewhere magical are you inclined to go there again? Or do you prefer to let the memory stand alone?

Some places are so great you keep going back. For example, I can’t go to LA without going to the Dresden. If I’m in Nashville I’ll try my best to eat at International Market and Restaurant. (the food is ok, but the family that owns it are amazing and they’ll often sit down at your table and tell stories!) I LOVE the Rock House in Negril.  Also, Cattleman’s Steakhouse outside El Paso. Just to name a few.

Give us some recommendations, a few places you’d steer a friend. Some places we might not think to go.

The Toilet Seat Art Museum in San Antonio.

In Big Bend National Park there is a ruins of an old natural hot spring resort. Several of the tubs on the banks of Rio Grande are still intact. Go at dawn before it gets too hot.

Amy and Dell at Copper Cloud Ranch in southern Utah will take you on the most breathtaking horseback ride of your life through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Scenery as good as any national park, but almost no one else there.

Meow Wolf Art Collective in Santa Fe.

The Mermaid Show near Tampa.

Gila Cave Dwellings in New Mexico.

Lotusland in Santa Barbara.

Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall. For the past 30 years Tom Hendrix, now 85, has been building a tribute to his great-great grandmother, a healer from the Yuchi tribe. Along with 50,000 other Native Americans, she was forced to leave her home and move to Oklahoma after the Indian Removal Act of 1830 aka the Trail of Tears. After she arrived in Oklahoma she defied the authorities and spent 5 years walking back to reclaim her land. To honor her Tom laid over a mile of stone walls. BY HIMSELF. Each stone representing one foot step in our journey. The wall is 12+ feet wide at some points and made of over 8 million pounds of rock. It is one of the most beautiful landform art pieces I’ve ever seen and certainly the most inspiring.

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