by Gail VBQ
June 15, 2015
Several years ago, as a student teacher in a historically lower-income but rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in New York City, I noticed certain elements of this familiar landscape changing more quickly than others; the mom-and-pop neighborhood convenience stores were shuttering, and in their places fancy corporate equivalents sprang forth. I am no historian, but I am a photojournalist, so I set out to document each of the city's remaining one-off cornershops (or "bodegas"). I accomplished this on foot in nine months with only on torn ligament.
When I returned to Omaha for a protracted visit this spring, the same innate vigilance that urged me to document my adopted city's vanishing bodegas acutely noted the quiet dissipation of the familiarly garish neon, "Western," and atomic-era signage at which I gawked skyward my entire childhood. Thus, I set out to document each Bronco's, La Casa, Westgate Plaza, Sapp Brothers Coffee Pot, Wolf Bros and Fan Tan Club-style marquee I could find before my gloriously thriving hometown's savvy developers interceded.
But, why ugly old signs? People ask conceptual photographers (rude) questions like this with impressive frequency. I could hide behind some fancy art degrees and declare I'm simply capturing forms and shapes I find aesthetically compelling, but commemorating in photographic form something many consider mundane (even boring) isn't quite so tidily explained, if I'm being honest. To paraphrase Omaha-born Ed Ruscha's explanations (as given in a 2013 NPR interview); I simply have a connection to those places, those pieces of humble graphic art decorated the skyline of my youth, and I want to preserve that memory.
Additionally, the memory isn't mine exclusively in the least - ask anyone who has lived in Omaha longer than they'd care to share about the Bohemian Cafe, soon to leave this realm after about a million years in business, or Cinema Center, soon to re-open as a shiny new gun club. These unique businesses (and, yes, their iconic signs) are part of a larger communal memory that is worth preserving.
How easy it is to forget, when the latest WalMart-style behemoth unfurls itself, what exactly used to occupy that now-homogenized chunk of land; I am interested in collecting this information both as simple historical documentation and as a more emotionally complicated visual tribute to aesthetic choices characteristic of specific bygone eras; a photographic record of those icons now faded or disappeared entirely.
The images I have collected are visual history of a time and place that will no longer exist at some point. This is not nostalgia for its own sake, this is a catalog of symbols people crafted with intention, and I feel it is the documentarian's duty to embrace and celebrate whatever those things are that create meaning and memories for whatever population they serve - intentionally or not. I have documented signs that I can recall from childhood, places that hold memories still vivid to me, and I have chosen to document signs that I simply found visually intriguing, but that surely hold meaning to others. Nothing that is made by human hands to serve human eyes should be allowed, in my opinion, to simply vanish with no record of existence. Even if the meaning imparted through my documentation has little to do with the intended purpose or audience of the sign itself, I am declaring its value in the only way a photographer can: by creating a visual record. This exists, or existed, and now is some way it always will.