The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

“Sign, sign
Everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery
Breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that
Can’t you read the sign?”
Songwriter: Les Emmerson
Released in 1970 by The Five Man Electrical Band.

The Monthly Monochrome for August celebrates the sign, one of the most excellent of photo subjects.

Why such high praise for the simple sign?

Why indeed.

When I want to take a picture of a sign, it doesn’t give me a ration of grief like my tweener grandchildren do. Unlike dogs and tweeners, signs don’t fidget in the middle of a shot – unless you count neon signs that blink or flicker. They don’t complain about having to pose or stand still. They don’t look at the photo and get all pissy because they didn’t smile or because they blinked (even the neon signs don’t complain when they’ve blinked). In fact, they don’t complain about anything.

A photo of a sign always has a story attached to it. Otherwise what’s the purpose in putting up a sign?

Signs can be clever; they can be funny or they can be off putting; they can be quirky; they can be attractive; they can be confusing and confounding, and they’re usually, but not always, informative.

Signs can be like people. And why not? After all, people make them. Signs come in various sizes, shapes and colors – just like people. Just like people they can make you happy or piss you off. They can have their own politics and religions.

A sign can be bossy and stern like your, “No Trespassing – Violators will Be Prosecuted” placard, or, a sign can be polite, such as “Please Clean Up After Your Dog.”

But enough of this palaver. Let’s get to the main event.

Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Attorney for John Barleycorn’s defense?

Somewhere in the piney woods of Northern Minnesota.
Whatever the speed limit is or was, there’s a legion of gun toters who aren’t down with it. Clearly an example of folks using their Second Amendment right to express their First Amendment opinion. C’mon, admit it. Haven’t there been times when you’ve wanted to do this to a sign? A NO PARKING sign maybe?

Copper Harbor, Michigan.
Is this where you go to purchase mental manipulation? God, how timely. Did the proprietor realize just how pervasive the term gaslight would be, starting in 2015?

Daaamn, isn’t this a bit drastic?
Hercules, California. Okay, so, if you’re pissed off at your pet there are less drastic measures. Maybe take away the chew toy instead? This has to be the very last resort. DO NOT blow up your pet.

And speaking of last resorts.
Osseo, Wisconsin. Self deprecating advertisement. Things can only go up from here. Does this advertising work? It must, because when I was in little Osseo, I wanted to stop and pay a visit, but unfortunately Jamie’s was closed when I passed by. Maybe Jamie was busy trying to warm up the cold women.

Damning with faint praise
Ritzville, Washington. In Ritzville the local grocer is careful to keep expectations to a minimum. I’m not sure why. Ritzville is tiny. This is THE grocery store. They could just as easily call it Ritzville’s Damn Good Grocer or The Worst Damn Store This Side of Hell and probably not miss a beat in business.

North Beach, San Francisco, California.
What’s the problem?
Arrive early if you want a table.
If you want dessert, Victoria Pastry is less than a five minute walk.
Decaf is to coffee as non-alcoholic wine is to a sturdy Zinfandel.
And the sign works because one day I’m going to patronize this place just because of this sign.

Union Square, San Francisco, California.
Just a block or so up from the hoity toity shops like Gumps, Saks Fifth and Gucci are these three signs that appeal to the more basic instincts. This is one of my favorite sign photos.

Fromberg, Montana.
Little Fromberg, population 395, is home to a local landmark, which is. by all accounts permanently closed. The Little Cowboy Bar was both a saloon and a museum which at one time housed Old West memorabilia along with the rare and the bizarre. Included in the latter category were giant African bugs, a jar which owner Shirley Smith claimed contained an alien fetus, and a live tarantula named Heebie Jeebie.

Mission District, San Francisco, California.
Hey, it’s drink o’clock.

North Beach, San Francisco, California.
A classic dive bar since before I can remember, Vieni Vieni opens at eight in the AM, so if you want a little hair off the dog, this is the place for you. And if you’re lucky a South American camelid will buy you a beer.
Opined a Yelp commenter, “Yes it is a dive bar. But it’s the cheapest bar in the area with nice staff and nice LOCAL patrons. If you are a snow flake hipster who only likes shinny (sic) new soulless places stay away. It’s been around 46 years. I enjoy the company of the staff and yes even the old drunks.”
I couldn’t think of a more ringing endorsement for a tavern. Can you?

North Beach, San Francisco, California.
Well, if you need an excuse to order THE classic libation, here you go. Vesuvio is another of San Francisco’s historic haunts. Founded in 1948, it was the haunt of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Neal Cassady. You can buy a book at the historic City Lights Bookstore just across Jack Kerouac Alley, read it over a drink at Vesuvio or you can just skip the book and enjoy the cool ambience of Vesuvio.

Jeffersonville, Kentucky
When I saw this sign I just had to stop and photograph it. It drew my attention because I’ve always thought that the notions of luck and god are supposed to be contradictory. But what do I know? I don’t go to church.

Port Costa, California.
Welcome to town stranger.
Port Costa is a small, isolated community on the shore of the Carquinez Straits, a narrow body of water whose progenitors are San Pablo Bay, San Francisco Bay, and finally the Pacific Ocean. These billingsgate laden placards sit at the mouth of town, just as you enter the little community. I’m sure this guy’s neighbors, and the town council are just thrilled.

I absolutely love these advertisements, also known as ghost signs, which are painted on the sides of brick buildings. Some are faded originals, growing dimmer with each season. Others have been revived with fresh coats of paint. When I was photographing the streets of Ritzville, Washington, I found a man who was doing just that, giving new life to old originals in decline.

McClean, Texas. Well, shit podner, in Texas, boots are as necessary as beef, barbeque and crooked politicians.

Jacksonville, Oregon.
The gold rush town of Jacksonville, in southern Oregon, was founded in 1851. It’s an interesting and charming, historic town that’s become kind of frou-frou. There are a few brickads in town, which I imagine have, over the years, received a fresh coat of new life.

Somewhere in the hollers of West Virginia.
In the early 1890s the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company, based in West Virginia, embarked on a nationwide advertising campaign, promoting its product on as many as 20,000 barns across the U.S. The ads became so iconic that when the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 ended much of the country’s highway advertising, the law was amended to allow landmark signs like Mail Pouch Tobacco to remain. The Mail Pouch ads were officially designated as historic landmarks. When I drove into West Virginia’s hollers I got myself hopelessly lost (Okay, not hopelessly, otherwise I’d still be there). In retrospect I’m glad that I was able to see and photograph this piece of Americana.

Fort Scott, Kansas

Fromberg, Montana,
This is one of my favorite photos – period. Rex Flour ghost signs are about as iconic as Mail Pouch signs. Again, I feel lucky to have had an opportunity to record this little piece of iconic America. It didn’t hurt that the clouds offered up some drama.

The moral of this post? When you’re out looking for something to photograph, don’t sleep on signs.

Breaking News: It’s been reported that Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge this week is – Signs. To see more black and white images of signs click on the link to see her take on signs and then visit her comments section for even more sign posts (Sign posts. Get it? I crack myself up).

28 thoughts on “Monthly Monochrome: Everywhere a Sign

  1. ResinRapture says:

    This parade of signs could be a lesson in typography as well. Signs don’t blink, but maybe the words draw the attention away from the photography, which is great. Somehow the monochrome ads to the impression of decline. You know how to pick them. Cold women and warm beer, dynamite pets and authoritative Trattorias… Nice finds!

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. “Nice finds.” It’s taught me to keep my camera nearby and be more observant so that I can capture the finds.

  2. Anne Sandler says:

    These signs are great. Thank you for photographing and sharing them.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Anne,
      Thank you for reading and for the kind comment.

  3. mistermuse says:

    Like (the ‘regular’ Like wouldn’t take)

    1. Paul says:

      Thanks. I’m going to take another run at WP.

    2. Paul says:

      Hello, I went back to WP with your problem and this was the response if you want to follow up.
      “Could you ask the blogger to try different browsers and see if that helps?
      Also, ask them to use a different internet connection as well.

      Here’s a guide that explains how to bypass common browser issues-

      If all that still does not help, please share the blogger’s email address so we may check if there’s any issue with their account.”

  4. Toonsarah says:

    Love all of these. Many made me smile, all are excellently photographed. I have a bit of a thing about ghost signs and am building an album of London examples to share some time soon.

    1. Paul says:

      Hi Sarah,
      Aren’t ghost signs wonderful? They’re all over the Southwest and Midwest. Not so much in California but I must say that I’ve found some in San Francisco that must be untouched up originals. Looking forward to your post on ghost signs.

  5. Ah I do like this collection, not least because I spent 35 years of my career in the sign business, but that’s another story. When we were in Belize this week, there were lots of signs written in Creole dialect, all the more hilarious for being so. One cafe which didn’t want people using it as a shortcut to the beach had a sign which read “No wokkin tru. Use da path not me cafe”. Love it.

    1. Paul says:

      That’s a great story about the signs in dialect. Did you photograph any?
      “I do like this collection, not least because I spent 35 years of my career in the sign business,” It seems that sometimes our work follows us. I spent ten years purchasing glass bottles and jars for the food and beverage industries and whenever I go to the stores I still turn over jars to see if my old employer makes them. It’s a sickness I think.
      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      1. Ha how true, I still find myself criticising if I see a shop sign with letters not working! Yes we did take photos but mostly of the ones which read “go slow”, which was the island’s motto.

        1. Paul says:

          Okay, so here’s another sign story. My wife and I were in Montreal, where the language is mostly French. We saw a number of parking lots filled with cars and the sign at the entry to all of these lots said Avis. I remarked to my wife that Avis (The rental car company) must have a sweet deal with the city. Days later it dawned on me that “Avis” means “notice” in French. These were all warning signs against unauthorized parking.

  6. Hettie D. says:

    Love them all 🙂 🙂

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you Hettie.

  7. Hettie D. says:

    I do not see a comment I just posted, does it mean I am also anonymized? (that’s Hettie)

    1. Paul says:

      Nope. You’re good.

  8. Hettie D. says:

    nevermind 🙂

  9. Cee Neuner says:

    Paul, I’m so glad you could play along this week. Your signs are terrific and some with a sense of humor 😀 😀

    1. Paul says:

      Hi Cee, Sorry for the late response. After having seen so many signs, odd, quirky and funny it’s taught me to always have my camera with me when I go out. You never know what will make an appearance.
      Thank you for hosting.

  10. eden baylee says:

    Hi Paul,

    Great start to this post, good song. This is from my fave song about signs. “Born under a bad sign”
    “I can’t read, haven’t learned how to write
    My whole life has been one big fight
    Born under a bad sign
    I been down since I begin to crawl
    If it wasn’t for bad luck
    I say I wouldn’t have no luck at all…”

    What strikes me about these pics is the simplicity of the signs, painted on brick walls, easy readable fonts, nothing too fancy. I’ve seen a return of that in the last couple of years for storefronts, maybe for economical reasons? Or because social media brings in customers and an expensive sign is no longer a draw.

    Great pics , my fave is the Little Cowboy Bar… it looks almost 3-dimensional, like a cartoon where the character has penetrated the wall!


    1. Paul says:

      Hi Eden,
      I forgot all about Born Under a Bad Sign. I thought about I Saw The Sign, but I that song got worn out by my daughter when she was a teeny bopper.
      Ghost signs; saw lots of them at Montréal”s Old Port. The had to be the originals because they were very faint.
      The question is, do you revive them , at which point they lose some authenticity?
      The Little Cowboy was right around the corner from Rex. Fromberg was rich in signs for a town that spans about 2 blocks.
      As always thank you for reading and commenting.

  11. Fine photos. Do you prefer to shoot in B&W or color?

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you. I almost solely shoot in color and then edit to monochrome. Sometimes it works and sometimes not so much. I usually shoot cemetery shots or old buildings in color with the intention of editing to B&W.
      Thank you for reading and commenting.

  12. annecreates says:

    Cool post! There’s a sign in my rural county marking a federally recognized bike trail that has been shot up. And the collection from Port Costa is eerily similar to the many stupid signs littering our roadways in my county. Thanks for sharing these!

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Anne,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. I only posted a portion of that Port Costa mess. I would have some serious issues with that guy if he was my neighbor. It’s a rare thing to see that in the Bay Area. Saw a lot of it when I drove through the Midwest, the South and the Southwest last year. It really is a sick cult.

Would love to hear from you

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