By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE’VE ALL SEEN THEM: signs, designed for a set purpose, repurposed by accident or intention into very different messages. They are everywhere: the “deer crossing” warning that is riddled with shotgun holes: the speed limit posting that gets spray-painted a few mph higher than what the law allows: the red diamond where the word “racism” is added to the word “stop”. For photographers, observing the environment is more than adding our own interpretation: it’s also noticing the way messages are modified by others, and chronicling the effect of it all.
Humans are highly adaptive, and if a sign isn’t working for them, they’ll set about to make it right, or at least put it in sync with their view of the world. But not all these revisions are vandalistic in nature. Certainly signs are morphed as pure commentary, but they are also messages of urgency, protests against official injustice, cries for help. In all cases, to show them in photographs is to acknowledge the passions behind the revisions.
And then there are the signs that nature itself takes a hand in reshaping. Wear and tear can render warnings and advisories ironic, even useless. Is a stencil symbolizing a handicapped parking space subject to reinterpretation, once it’s been weathered into abstraction, as seen here? If a safety zone sign is smashed by one careless car too many, are we seeing a good argument for further civic action? Street photography is partly about people and partly about how people fit (or don’t fit) into the infrastructures of their lives. Sometimes, of course, we can try a little too hard to make sense of it all. I recall, decades ago, during the making of one of my many ill-advised student films, falling in love with a particular EXIT sign and deciding that I should shoot enough movie film to edit a shot of it into multiple mileposts of my magnum opus. Sadly, the movie in question didn’t have much to conceptually hold it together beyond the occasional popping-up of the word EXIT between sequences. Truly, if I were hooked up to a polygraph I could prove that I remember nothing else about the project. However, I can still see that sign in my dreams/nightmares. Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.
All of which is to merely say that no sign registered by our cameras is ever just about what it “says”. It’s always evaluated within the context of what we want to say….or want to avoid saying. That is, we can never just take signs at their word. In the right hands, they have so much to say beyond that.
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.