Sign Of The Times
October 30, 2010 in Photography
An ode to the more traditional methods of advertising before the arrival of the L.E.D. screen: graphic design, typography, craftsmanship and paint.
My parents are graphic designers, working as a duo from home in rural Northumberland. I grew up watching them go about their work on a big drawing board using a scalpel, spray mount, kappa board, acetate and letraset. During the nineties Apple Macs became more widely available and affordable, and as such my parents’ methods changed forever. They’re now fully Mac-based of course, as I am myself – but when I think back to how they used to work it never ceases to amaze me how they were able to create what they did and work that way.
Ghost signs (as they are most commonly known) began to catch my eye when I moved to London, and I inevitably found it fascinating to think about how they’d been created and the level of skill and craftsmanship that was involved. I later realised how attractively some of the signs I was seeing had aged. I was seeing layers of typography, paint, colour – and combined with the texture of the crumbling and flaking materials, many of them were appealing to me as looking like contemporary pieces of design in the vein of work by the likes of Tomato or Ray Gun magazine. I felt that if these faded remnants of the past I was seeing around me were used on new book jackets or record covers for example, they would stand up incredibly well against a new piece of work, the signs having evolved and aged completely naturally in ways that contemporary designers or illustrators often emulate.
After taking some early photographs of the signs I quickly realised it could become an interesting series to develop, not only because of my personal interest but because in a sense I was preserving the signs – which I had noticed were liable to disappear or be defaced in an instant.
I’m most attracted by the signs that I can stand directly in front of, because ultimately I want the signs I shoot to fill my frame and appear as flat as possible – presenting them as the worthy examples of graphic design that they have now become. I can’t always shoot a sign in this way of course. Sometimes I’ll take a photograph of a sign in a manner that adds a sense of scale – a passing person, or an adjacent building.
Aside from the design and craftsmanship element, I love how ghost signs temporarily teleport you into the past, to a time when there were no digital billboards cluttering our view of the city. Having grown up in the countryside I often find myself wishing I didn’t see the visual pollution of advertisements everywhere I turn and wonder what it would take for London to emulate São Paulo and place a ban on billboards.
My Sign Of The Times project is the ongoing documentation of a particular breed of ghost sign – referencing both my background and upbringing, and my love/hate relationship with new technology. The series now comprises of images from London, New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, and Edinburgh.