Sunday, November 29, 2009

Signs For The Times

Grafton, West Virginia

I have a longtime fascination with old signs and am drawn to them as photographic subjects. Odd juxtapositions also interest me – in writing, in imagery, and in life in general.

This penchant of mine may be rooted in a scene I saw daily while growing up, the view from the front porch of my childhood home. Across the two-lane highway from our house was the neighbor’s barn. The east side of the barn was covered with two painted signs. At the top was a sign with a painted cross and scripture warning: “Christ is coming soon. Are you ready?” Below it a tobacco sign urged: “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco. Treat yourself to the best.” Drivers traveling west of Route 22 often stopped to take a photograph. It took me years to understand that it wasn’t the bucolic scene, but rather the incongruity of the signs that attracted their interest.

The old farmer who owned it wasn’t getting paid for the advertising space, but instead got his barn painted by the tobacco company for free. I don’t know who sponsored the religious sign, but over the years the Mail Pouch advertisement faded while the scripture and cross were repainted again and again. The signs on that barn may have been the topic of more than one Sunday morning sermon among the local churches.

Billboards have changed over the decades, but they still try to sell the American dream to passersby. Trademarks and logos have become part of the landscape and language. Burma Shave signs and slogans may be relics of the past, but Coca-Cola thrives on youthful rejuvenation and digitized billboards.

Liberty Theater, New Orleans, Louisiana by Walker Evans

I only recently connected my interest in signage to Walker Evans’ photographs, noticing Evans had a fondness for photographing advertisements and that Coca-Cola signs recur in his images. Evans used signs within his photographs to show the division of classes – the American dream beyond the reach of those who could barely feed their families in the dire economic times of the Great Depression. He juxtaposed advertisements for Hollywood movies and luxury travel with the poverty and struggle of people who had no hope of escape.

I cannot think of billboards and the American dream without remembering the image of the optometrist’s billboard in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Key scenes are played out under the spectacled eyes advertising the optometry services of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. The Great Gatsby is about the American dream, about the pursuit of wealth, and about social strata. The reminiscent narrator, Nick Carraway, is an observer, an outsider, a distant cousin from the Midwest who is trying to make sense of the New York world and of the events that happened in the story he is relating.

It’s a timeless story, one of ruthless people living large on money that is inherited or made through get rich quick schemes. It has particular resonance today in light of Ponzi schemes and Bernie Madoff bilking his clients out of their life savings, or in simply watching our 401Ks tank along with the dream of retirement. No doubt the signs are always there for us. Unfortunately we can’t always see them until they are behind us and we’ve traveled far down the road.

Roanoke, Virginia

News and Updates:

Thanks to writer Cynthia Newberry Martin for the shout out on her blog Catching Days about my posts on abandoned things. Cynthia has been a regular reader and frequent commenter at In This Light, and I’m grateful for her ongoing support and enthusiasm for what I’m doing here.

Photograph credits:

“Painted Signs, Grafton, West Virginia” copyright 2008 by Dory Adams

“Movie Theater on Saint Charles Street. Liberty Theater, New Orleans, Louisiana” by Walker Evans. FSA, Library of Congress, LC-USF342-T01-001285-A.

“Mixed Signs, Roanoke, Virginia” copyright 2008 by Dory Adams

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1 comment:

cynthia newberry martin said...

Dory, this is a wonderful post weaving a narrative out of images from your past and from literature. The sign on the barn, signs in Walker Evans' photos, the billboard in The Great Gatsby. Very nice.

And thanks for your shout out!