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
I AM ALREADY ON RECORD AS A CHAMPION OF THE ODD, THE OFF-KILTER, AND THE JOYFULLY STRANGE IN AMERICAN RETAIL. As a photographer, I often weep over the endangered status of the individual entrepreneur, the shopkeeper who strikes out in search of a culturally different vibe, some visual antidote to the tsunami of national chains and marts that threatens to drown out our national soul. Sameness and uniformity is a menace to society and a buzzkill of biblical proportions for photography. Art, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
It is, of course, possible that someone might have created a deathless masterpiece of image-making using a Denny’s or a Kohl’s as a subject, and, if so, I would be ecstatic to see the results, but I feel that the photog’s eye is more immediately rewarded by the freak start-ups, the stubborn outliers in retail, and nowhere is this in better evidence than in eateries. Restaurants are like big sleeves for their creators to wear their hearts on.
That’s why this divinely misfit toy of a diner, which was hidden in plain sight on one of the main drags in central Phoenix, has given me such a smile lately. I have never eaten at the swelegant Two Hippies’ Beach House, but I have visually feasted on its unabashed quirkiness. And if the grub is half as interesting as the layout, it must be the taste equivalent of the Summer of Love.
Even if the food’s lousy, well, everyone still gets a B+ anyway for hooking whoever is induced to walk in the door.
On the day I shot this, the midday sun was (and is) harsh, given that it’s, duh, Arizona, so I was tempted to use post-processing to even out the rather wide-ranging contrast. Finally, though, I decided to show the place just as I discovered it. Amping up the colors or textures would have been overkill, as the joint’s pallette of colors is already cranked up to 11, so I left it alone. I did shoot as wide as I could to get most of the layout in a single frame, but other than that, the image is pretty much hands-off.
Whatever my own limited skill in capturing the restaurant, I thank the photo gods for, as the old blues song goes, “sending me someone to love.”
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.