Tuesday, December 10, 2013

If They Will Be There Tomorrow: A Conversation with Derek Stenborg

As even a cursory glance of No Such Thing As Was reveals, I'm a big fan of abandoned buildings, those inter-spaces between lived-in and ghosted, having and losing. One illustration of abandonment is a painted sign on a building, peeling and fading under decades of sunlight and gentrification. For the past two decades, Brooklyn-based scenic artist and designer Derek Stenborg has been traveling the country photographing these civic disappearing acts, what he calls "Ghost Signs." He's collected and self-published over 200 of them in a new book, Lost And Found: A Sign Photography Book, a terrific and culturally valuable document of literally fading times. His striking, exquisitely composed color photos capture the end of brick-and-mortar advertising, signage that was dependent upon the life of the structures that it emblazoned. In a sense, and with the vantage point of a kind of aesthetic hindsight, these Ghost Signs amount to found art, perishable and aesthetically pleasing illustrations of a long-vanished way of life. Many of the signs are beautiful in the early- and mid-century graphic ad style, illustrative, colorful, spirited; others are grimly utilitarian, boxy and industrial. What I love about Stenborg's photos is the way they complicate Alain de Botton's statement that "Taking photographs can assuage the itch for possession sparked by the beauty of a place; our anxiety over losing a precious scene can decline with every click of the shutter." Possession notwithstanding, our photos ultimately become a documentary on loss.

Stenborg's photographs evoke nostalgia for a lost era, a romanticized notion of a genteel age before blaring 24/7 television and Internet pop-up ads. Such antiquity is revealed without recourse to the filters and lenses that millions now use on their camera phones, courtesy of Instagram, Hipstamatic, MagicHour, and the like. I'm ambivalent about such digital photography applications—I marvel at and indulge them, all the while being sceptical of their irony. John D'Agata recently wrote about a pivotal instance when nature photographer Ansel Adams discovered that it was only through utilizing a red filter on his camera that he was able to capture the reality of a mountain he was photographing. D'Agata writes:
As he himself later put it, this is the first time in Adams’ career that he has managed to make a mountain look like how it feels. To do this however, he has deeply manipulated the mountain he loves, he has wrangled the reality of the world around him into what he has needed it to be.
No deeper manipulation of ghost signs is needed, it seems. Their very obsolescence and deterioration—time's filters—tell their stories.
© Lost And Found: A Sign Photography Book
As Stenborg puts it in Lost And Found, "I used to look up at signs, then look away. Now I look up and photograph them, because you never know if they will be there tomorrow. The companies responsible for the advertisements and the painters who painted them never knew how long their images would remain. These signs and ads fade away or get painted over, which compelled me to document them. Each photograph has been captured in a decisive moment."

Recently, I virtually sat down with Stenborg to discuss photography, nostalgia, and Lost And Found.


Derek Stenborg
You're a professional scenic artist, designer, and photographer. When did you begin taking photographs?

Growing up, my dad had various media equipment about the house, including an 8mm movie camera that I was obsessed with. I also inherited  a Minolta SRT 101 from my dad when I went off to college in 1988. I loved that camera and I took many photographs with it. That's when I seriously looked at photography as a standalone art form and studied about certain photographers I liked. I unfortunately lost that camera with a checked bag on an airplane about 15 years ago. I did have the Minolta when I moved to New York in 1992. Urban landscape became inspiring, so some of my photos happened to be of signs and graffiti. Every once and a while I'd take a train or bus out of town for a job and I started to notice fading ads along rail lines, specifically on a trip to Durham, North Carolina 1996 and also on my honeymoon trip in the same year. Being an artist I have always taken photographs to document my work. It wasn't until the mid nineties that I got the spark to photograph old advertisements.

What camera and equipment do you use?

After losing the Minolta, I didn't have a camera for a while. I went through various point and shoots: Kodak (35mm), a Russian camera called a LOMO, a couple of digital Fuji's and then a Minolta DiMAGE Z10, at which point I revisited the idea of photographing fading ads. in 2005. That camera was dropped a couple of times so I got a Nikon E4800 point and shoot. It had been a real mish-mosh and somewhat frustrating period of equipment until recently. About a year ago I bought a LUMIX DMC-GF3. This is the marriage of the Leica camera body and interchangeable Panasonic lenses. I have a standard 35mm lens and a portrait lens that zooms to 200mm. In some ways, this is the contemporary version of my original Minolta set up from 20 years ago. Although it is fully digital with presets, you can override in a manual mode and adjust the aperture and shutter speed just like an SLR.  Needless to say I love this camera, and many of my sign photos in my book I re-shot with it.

© Lost And Found: A Sign Photography Book
Your work navigates between gritty realism and nostalgia. Can you talk a bit about that?

That navigation is the key. My aesthetic has been to take something that people often ignore, like a dilapidated sign and present it in a beautiful way. The presentation comes in photoshop with pushing the depth of field, sharpening, blurring, and vignetting. Visually and metaphorically this creates a portal to our past. I tend to square up the sign artwork and remove the perspective, so that it is viewed as designed, like the sign painter arriving at the work site with a rolled up drawing that will be transferred to the wall. I sometimes think, "What would this advertisement have looked like to the painter painting it?" Decades later, the lettering and layout is barely visible, but the weathering creates a beauty all on its own. I think the gritty realism comes when you don't see these nostalgic brands in perfect form or in a well kept setting.

What is it about vanishing signs that appeal to you?

Ghost signs and fading advertisements have lived through environmental changes brought by the weather, decades of additional painting, added construction and removed construction. At the point the paint wears off and the texture of the building facade comes through, palimpsest is an appealing part of my work. A palimpsest is a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain. It is a work of art only brought about by time, and to see these ghost signs in our contemporary environment is like an installation piece.  

I enjoy hunting for them. I often map out where I'd like to go to find old signs. I actually have a road trip planned to go to Texas during the holidays, so I'm doing some research now about the best scenic route on the way. Lastly, I enjoy deciphering them when parts of the sign are completely faded, or only certain colors are left. I will save a version of the photo and run it through all of the black and white filter options in photoshop. This will remove colors and make it easier to read some signs with multiple advertisements. I discover brands that I never new existed.

© Lost And Found: A Sign Photography Book
Most ghost signs (when painted as original advertisements) were never intended to be stand alone objects for long. Ghost signs tell a story of survival. The signs that I have photographed span a wide range. Some ads might have been painted a 100 years ago, whereas others only 20 years ago. Some of the older signs may have been well preserved, whereas some recently painted signs may have been hit hard by weather more than an old one. Some of my favorite photographs have been of multiple older advertisements, for instance a Gold Medal Flour painted over a Bull Durham Tobacco and collaged with a Uneeda Biscuit. Each one of those nostalgic brands have historical significance and have their own success story, but when you mash them together and add the elements of weather and the environmental effects, it tells a story of survival. Occasionally these stories of survival are also satirical commentary for the survival of a brand. For instance, a peeling General Motors advertisement during the automobile bail-out or a money roll with a happy face during the mortgage crisis. I love the irony of those images.

What do you feel is the cultural relevance of nostalgia? Do you feel that nostalgia limits you in any way?

I feel nostalgia is recognizable, it connects people and serves as a spring board for new ideas. In terms of my photography work, it is not limiting, it actually gives me focus. Although I like seeing new examples of old advertisements, I'd much rather find a ghost sign to photograph. I'm presenting an evolution of the original intention, that often conjures up feelings connected with loss and survival. Nostalgia gives you an appreciation of where we've come and gratitude of what we have. The trick is not to allow it to stop progression, that is why I briefly visit contemporary sign painting and muralists in my book.

I'm very interested to hear your feelings about the current vogue of digital photography apps Instagram and Hipstamatic and the rest, and the prevalence of filtered photographs into the mainstream. As a photographer, what's your attitude to the myriad of filter, lens, and flash options available to anyone with a smart phone? Are such things aids to "cheating?" Writer John D'Agata spoke very recently about how Ansel Adams didn't feel he fully caught the reality of a mountain until he'd used a dark red filter. Are their positives and negatives to such manipulation, and do you feel tempted to manipulate the photographs of signs?

I was taught to strive to get the best exposure and to know your equipment so your able to predict your photo before taking it. That takes skill. I was also taught to experiment with the negative and printing. Then along came digital photography which has revolutionized the industry because it opened the doors to the history of photographic techniques. Although I use photoshop a lot, I think back to a time when I was doing the same developing and printing in a dark room. Using rodinol to get crisp negatives and double exposing prints, manually dodging and burning. This post production work can now be achieved with the click of a mouse, or a preset using Instagram. Ultimately this is good because it conveys your expression in a less laborious way. I think Ansel Adams was a brilliant artist. He transcended technical limitations (in pre- and post-production) to convey his emotional response to his subject, and his universe.  A photograph is what the photographer wants it to be. Ansel Adams helped evolve photography as an art form with his techniques. As artists, we share our vision in the universe we create. I think filters have become a vocabulary and can inspire vision. I think smart phone apps are fun and can inspire the next generation to make interesting choices. The whole concept of Instagram keeps people interested in photography for a little while longer, which isn't bad.


Find Lost and Found at facebook and Lulu.

All images by Derek Stenborg © Lost And Found: A Sign Photography Book


Unknown said...

Brilliant Article! Thank You!

Anonymous said...

This guy has talent!

goodthings said...

Very interesting article. Would love to see the book.

DeeGee said...

This book breaks the boundaries of visual commentary by challenging the "fourth wall" both literally and figuratively. The palimpsest of past and present create a lens not only through which Stenborg shoots but through which we experience historical realism.

But seriously, buy this book.

M Sharp said...

Great piece, Joe. I was in Memphis TN and Clarksdale MS a few years ago, and got some good photos of old faded building signs. Memphis also has a lot of recent signage, a lot of buildings look like the business owner bought a wide paint brush and a can of paint and went to work. I'd say the aesthetic quality was more like folk art than graphic design. Memphis is also full of old rusted metal signs, a lot of liquor advertising.

If Derek's going to Texas, I saw a big old Coca-Cola sign on a three story brick building that was a neon shop when I was there about five years ago. It's in Luling, an hour south of Austin, on a side street not too far from the City Market bbq joint. Be sure to get some ribs & brisket, and try the sauce.