By MICHAEL PERKINS
Let me kick my credentials.
Ice-T, Back On The Block
A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, THE WORD WAS “BALLYHOO“, a term for the most salient trait of Americans; self-promotion, the proud and loud announcement that we are here. Ballyhoo has assumed many forms, being at once proclamations about who we are; statements of who we hope to be; agendas for what we want you to think; claims about what we have to sell or bargain with; reminders about how much respect we demand; warnings about our boundaries; rules of engagement, for good or ill.
“Self-legending”, and how it makes its way into our every visual communication, is perhaps the most American of American qualities. We didn’t single-handedly invent mass communication or advertising, but we certainly promoted and perfected the fine art of ballyhoo in ways that are still modeled the world over. Photographs of our urban landscape are a blur of our various brags, boasts, promises, and promotions, along with the hard truth that, like it or not, you must deal with us. Americans are almost fatally allergic to being ignored, and so, simply announcing is never as good as shouting through a megaphone, or, in graphic terms, making the colors bolder and the letters bigger. We visually bellow at each other like barkers in a carnival or competing vendors in a street market.
In making their enduring images of life in this country in the twentieth century, masters like Robert Frank and Walker Evans often shot frames that were almost completely composed of signage. Today, those time freezes are a valuable resource for marking what our priorities were in bygone eras; the various announcements of merchandise, company names and prices anchor the pictures in specific dreams of specific times. Nearly one hundred years on, we use different tools to, in Ice-T’s phrase, “kick our credentials”, but the same urgent need to be noticed, to be heeded, goes on, albeit in new guises. I can never photographically take the measure of a city without trying to contrast old and new signage, original inscriptions and names along with the newest refits from a Starbucks or a McDonald’s. Photography is the first art in the history of the world that is equal parts reportage and interpretation, and trying to learn how to see humanity amidst all the ballyhoo will always make for legendary pictures.
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