January 20 – Here’s Your Sign

01-20 Your Sign post

Our life is what our thoughts make it.
~Marcus Aurelius

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I’m not the only photographer that has a weird fascination with signs. It seems like a habit a lot of us have fallen into. I don’t think it’s the signs themselves that attract us, but the era they evoke. Designs from the golden age of commercial neon signage, starting roughly in the 1950s, have long ago gone out of style. Vintage neon tubes are getting harder to find, especially in their original context. Buildings are torn down and the signs are often demolished, too. A few survive in their original context, usually on registered historic buildings, and others survive in personal collections.

Old buildings, ghost towns, unique architecture, and vintage signs present something of a game to image collectors; objects like these are like checklist items in a photography scavenger hunt. The image above is actually a bit of a “non-sign,” I’d venture to say. It’s likely the entrance sign for an old two-pump gas station on this street corner. There’s a shuttered repair shop, aluminum doors locked, and the gas pumps have been removed. This sign frame is a rusting heap keeping vigil over a shack and a loosely organized pile of whitewashed cinder blocks that vaguely resemble a low-rent apartment complex.

Hell, since the original picture was made five years ago – never previously published – the area may be completely different today.

The street corner is on South 4th Avenue along the Old Benson Highway on Tucson’s south side, across from the Lazy 8, Tucson’s “cleanest budget motel.” A lot of you Tucson folks have probably driven that stretch of highway but never stopped to look at the scenery; mostly cheap hotels, run-down apartments, abandoned commercial structures, rent-a-fences, and dumpsters. You’ve probably clapped eyes on the Lazy 8 sign on your way to the airport, but never had a reason to pull over and check it out.

That’s what I like about this photography gig. Boring things become interesting. You stop and look around when you normally wouldn’t have any reason to hit the brakes. Sure, the suspicion that there might not be anything of interest often proves to be true, but it’s still a different kind of experience. There’s a slow-down that happens when you look at the world through the lens. I became addicted to that sensation when I first started making pictures, and I’ve never gotten over it.

I encourage everyone to take the time, even just once, to walk around with a camera and start looking at the world through that funny little box with a lens. It can be pretty eye-opening.


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