By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF THE MOST UNIQUE CASUALTIES OF SO-CALLED URBAN PROGRESS, key parts of a city’s visual signature, are the everyday signs associated with local businesses, from the red neon over your local bar to the hand-painted address on your favorite eatery. Naturally, photographers have a big stake in the obliteration of any feature of the changing urban landscape, and there is a growing movement to treasure signage as symbols of identity in neighborhoods that are increasingly in danger of being genericized by fast-food and mega-retail chains.
Graphic designer Molly Woodward deserves a lot of credit for the attention now being paid to urban signage, and her website on what she calls vernacular typography contains essays and samples that illustrate what is being lost in town after town. Cities like New York that experience a faster-than-average turnover in area retail see signs for locally owned businesses vanish more frequently. And while it’s normal for mom-and-pop ventures to wink in and out of existence all the time, the chance for entire blocks to be graphically drenched in a candy coating of Starbucks logos is greater in major metropolitan areas.
Woodward’s web archive is rich in photographs of these disappearing urban signatures, and there is certainly a rich vein of source material for any enterprising city photographer. Signs help anchor neighborhoods, acting as mile markers, landmarks, and a more human scale of commerce. They remind us where we are, what our streets are all about. They mark where we grew up, what we wanted to be. The boundaries of our bailiwick. They are personal transactions. Meet me under the clock near the Chinese laundry. See you at 5 near the giant neon cheeseburger.
Shooting signs is an act of reportage; it’s correspondent work. And it’s no less important than photographing the ruins of an ancient cathedral or a portal on the Great Wall, since it’s a kind of archaeology. Many thanks to the Molly Woodwards of the world as they hold back the tide against a mindless homogenization of our streets. And thanks in turn to those who pick up her vibe and click away at the Acmes and Ajaxes in their own towns, often just steps ahead of the wrecking ball.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FEW OF US CAN CHANNEL FRANK SINATRA’S VOCAL ACUMEN, but we can all relate to the urban movies that he started running in the projection rooms of our minds. For most of his career, The Voice was a very visual actor, shaping sound into virtual landscapes of lonely towns, broken-hearted guys wandering the waterfront, and blue mornings where the sun rises on you and ….nobody else. Frank could smile, swagger, strut and swing, for sure, but he was the original king of desolate all-nighters, our tour guide to the dark center of the soul.
He was also, not coincidentally, a pretty good amateur photographer.
I tend to see restaurants, bars, and city streets in general through the filter of Sinatra’s urban myths. Tables covered with upturned chairs. The bartender giving the counter one more weary wipedown. Dim neon staining rain-soaked brick streets. Curling blue-grey wisps of cigarette smoke. And shadows that cover the forgotten in inky cloaks of protection. Give me eight bars of “One For My Baby” and I’m searching for at least one bar that looks like the last act in a Mamet play.
It becomes a kind of ongoing assignment for photographers. Find the place that strikes the mood. Show “lonely”. Depict “Over”. Do a portrait called “Broken-hearted Loser.” There are a million variations, and yet we all recognize a slice of every one. Like Frank, we’ve all been asked by the host if he can call us a cab. Like Frank, we’ve all wondered, sure, pal, but where do I go now?
It’s not often a pretty picture. But, with luck, it’s sometimes a pretty good picture.