Resurrecting the Roadside Glow of a Neon Age: The Man Who Photographs Vintage Signs
Story by Vincent Anthony Conti
Photography by Marc Shur
Marc Shur is a freelance art director from Los Angeles with a profound appreciation for old school advertisement methods. He has made a hobby of collecting typographical reminders from when marketing was an analog art form. While hesitant to call himself a hoarder, his collection has only been checked by the amount of storage he has available. The mementos and inspirational relics are beginning to encroach on his garage space.
“I like to save any vintage materials that I find while working with various companies. I’m always attracted to these old prints from a time when all of the illustrations, logos, and typefaces were created by hand.”
This fascination with historic items eventually became the basis for a long-term artistic pursuit. In the wake of the economic crisis in 2008 advertisement contracts subsided. Marc was insistent on continuing to work despite a lack of professional opportunity. He determined that a photography project was an effective way to keep active and focused. The subject: vintage signs.
“When you study media and marketing you learn to be observant of 100% of the space. Every inch of canvas is being used in a deliberate fashion – even the negative space. Sign-making is a media that exemplifies this principle. And by photographing these signs you’re simply adding another dimension, another layer of depth. You’ve allowed the sign to tell a story.”
Viewing the gallery of Marc’s photos – Sign Language – a pattern emerges. The pictures are always framed in a way that causes the viewer to feel as if they were standing in the dust beside an interstate, neck craned back, squinting at an archaic sign against a crystalline blue sky. Any hints of modernity have been omitted. There is an element of hyperrealism that makes the sign feel larger than life, in spite of the rust and fading colors.
“While instinct says to shoot a subject from a well-lit angle, I always shoot from the shady side. It allows me to control the exposure, to find the details without a glare or harsh shadows. I don’t want any of the natural features obscured. I love patina, any indication of age. If a sign has been repainted three times and sixty years are peeling away I want that to come through in the photograph.”
Most of the signs photographed by Marc can be found in relatively dilapidated locations, in the forgotten parts of towns that once boomed with growth and innovation, but now pale in comparison. Marc is always watchful while traveling and isn’t afraid to take a spontaneous detour in search of a historic nook off of the highway. Some signs are so well-hidden that they could never be found without the help of a treasure map database that he keeps in his cellphone: photos and geo markers shared by other photographers and enthusiasts. It isn’t uncommon for Marc to be met with varying degrees of hostility when shooting in these locations.
“Sometimes parking my car in a random lot is enough to draw attention, so I have to shoot quickly. The camera I use is quite large, so subtlety isn’t really an option. I’ve learned to travel with a business card that specifically mentions my vintage sign photography, just to make it very clear why I’m there. If I can pacify the suspicions of the locals I have a better chance of getting the shot.”
Negative reception isn’t the norm, fortunately. Marc has also been shown well-warranted gratitude for the preservationist nature of his photography.
“When I finish a photo for the gallery I like to make the location clear for other travelers who may like to find these spots for themselves. I once shared a sign from a dance studio in Gardenia. The grandson of the studio’s founder reached out to me directly to show his appreciation, asking for a copy of the image.”
This is no anomaly. Marc often considers the folks who commissioned the signs. He likes to imagine their stories, and the aspirations alluded to by the surviving text: company names, offerings, hours, even weekly specials.
“I want to capture the feeling of pride an owner would have felt seeing the sign being installed in front of their business – their livelihood. I respect the power in the promise and guidance these signs represented for the countless people who drove past them. There is an element of resurrection in photographing landmarks. In some way I hope to re-elevate them to the status they once held.”
The widespread demand for artisanal signage can be understood when you contrast the advertising strategies from the past with the present. Today it is rarely a company’s sign or storefront that draws customers. Instead, the abstract windows of digital media – a field that Marc has expertise in – are responsible for drawing fresh clientele. The entirety of a business’ branding can be accomplished online.
In the midcentury era, emphasis was placed on the “here and now.” The diner, gas station, pool hall, motel, and the laundromat had one chance to convey their entire essence to the public: the biggest and brightest sign they could afford. Marc’s adoration for the 1950’s is very conceivable, evidenced by his driving a bright red ‘59 Corvette for a number of years.
“I really love the look of neon. The sign makers would curve metal ‘cans’ around the bent glass to localize the neon glow to a specific channel, refining the illumination and keeping the design elements sharp for nighttime viewing. These are the most difficult signs to photograph, but also my favorite.”
The skillset required in the neon age took the makers years to develop, and with the exception of a few modern artisans, the artform has essentially been lost. The cost and time required simply wouldn’t be feasible for large-scale production today.
“I try not to lament the transition to technology. Personally, I would never forfeit the tools that my computer affords me. In some way these signs are more romantic because their purpose as a marketing device has come and gone. They can now be appreciated purely for artistic pleasure. I am only saddened when signs are destroyed, whether by disposal or a heartless repurposing.”
As cities continue to regenerate, with old architecture making way for new structures, retro design features of all forms are being lost. In the forgotten towns that Marc forages through erosion and time will be the primary assailants. While it is not feasible to physically resurrect every sign with faithful restorations, preservation is possible. Marc encourages the donation of these irreplaceable signs to museums and art galleries – such as MONA – the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, California.
Much of our driving culture is centered on the concept of getting out and away. We find time to distance ourselves from the banality of our daily settings, to leave the all-too-familiar scenery for the singular enjoyment of our automobiles and motorcycles. Perhaps we can rediscover the excitement felt by previous generations as they motored into a new town, delving back into population for the comfort and entertainment being offered, the hood of their car dancing with the pulse of neon glow. Marc Shur’s photographs remind us to glance up a little more often, and to enjoy the space age monuments hiding in plain sight.