Art Review: 'Palimpsests: Ghost Signs of Pittsburgh' at Filmmakers
They're all around us, fading signs of times gone by. In a city like Pittsburgh, history is inescapable. And that's no more true than at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries in Oakland where the current exhibit “Palimpsests: Ghost Signs of Pittsburgh” displays approximately 150 documentary photographs of fading signs captured in as many locations in and around the city.
Begun in 2012, this documentary project was the brainchild of filmmaker Will Zavala. It includes signs from Arlington, Brighton Heights, Carnegie, Carrick, East Liberty, Hill District, Homewood, Larimer, Lawrenceville, Manchester, McKees Rocks, North Side, Polish Hill, Sharpsburg, Stowe, Strip District, Uptown, West End and Wilkinsburg.
Zavala says he began to notice these fading signs, most of which had been painted on brick buildings in lieu of billboards in the first half of the last century, when he moved to Pittsburgh from San Francisco 10 years ago.
“The idea for a photo project came early, but I didn't act on it until I realized that, one by one, these signs were being demolished, or chem-washed, or just fading into oblivion,” Zavala says.
Though there are a lot of public murals in Pittsburgh as well, Zavala says he has always liked these signs more. “It's funny, because they are not art — they're just faded advertisements. But they're remarkably complex in their textures, colors, shapes. Some of them are really puzzling: What's that word? What are those words beneath that word?”
Given his background as a filmmaker, Zavala says he knew enough about photography to realize it was beyond his capabilities to capture what he liked best about this subject.
“So, I sought out a photographer and found someone I actually already knew from the school at (Pittsburgh) Filmmakers,” he says. That photographer was Kelly Bogel, a Duquesne University graduate who earned her certificate in photography at Pittsburgh Filmmakers.
“Kelly took the documentary approach,” Zavala says. “She let the signs reveal themselves. But she worked very carefully to get them there. The photographs are beautiful.”
And indeed, with their lush colors and rich textures, they are. To that end, Bogel used a large format (4x5) film camera, then digitally scanned the film to make the prints on display.
The large analog photographs capture the decaying, ghostlike appearance on the architectural structures perfectly.
Take, for example, “Mother's Bread,” which was found and shot in Polish Hill. Here the deep, rich red pigment that makes a bold background to stark, white block letters is still deeply entrenched in the insulbrick siding that serves as substrate.
“When I shot this photograph, a resident in Polish Hill took interest in the large camera I was setting up,” Bogel says. “He told me about how there was a fire several years ago that burned the building down next to the sign. He said it was snowy that night and the whole neighborhood looked as though it was on fire. This fire happened on March 10, 2008. It was only after the burned building was razed that the Mother's Bread sign became visible.”
Likewise, “Bloch Bros, Tobacco” shot in Carnegie was “unveiled” by demolition of the adjoining building in 2008. It is one of the most vividly colored and pristine signs that Bogel shot for the project.
“Bob Miller, the building owner, told us it has actually become clearer since then, as rain washes away decades of soot,” Zavala says.
Bogel's assistant, David Stokes, found the sign “Valley Dairy” in Manchester, North Side.
“He knew I would really like this one because it is painted on a decrepit building that is overgrown with plants,” Bogel says. “I really love shooting this style of urban decay. The roof of the building has caved in and the walls are crumbling, revealing the sky through the window next to the sign.”
With plenty of old signage still extant, the Lawrenceville neighborhood is well represented. “Polska Apteka,” for example, was shot from a second-story window of Radiant Hall, the artist studio space on Plummer Street in central Lawrenceville. “Although I had driven down this street many times before,” Bogel says, “I didn't see this sign until I had the higher vantage point in the art studio.”
For this shot, Bogel used a 4x5 field camera called the Speed Graphic. “The rest of the project was shot with a larger, Calumet 4x5 view camera,” she says.
The exhibit includes a map of all locations, as well as a monitor for digital viewing of the approximately 150 locations that were scouted for the project. And as many visitors will come to realize, several of the signs (and some of the buildings they were on) have already been removed or are deteriorating rapidly.
“Dad's Root Beer,” for example, was originally shot in Perry South in April 2013.
“When I returned to the location for a reshoot in November, my assistant and I realized the building it was painted on was gone — it had been demolished,” Bogel says. “I realized the true ephemeral nature of these signs that day. Luckily, I was able to use the photograph from the first shoot for the exhibition.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.