It’s time for July’s Exploring with a Camera – Yay! This month we are going to explore Signs. Not signs as in symbols or messages from the universe, but signs as in those things printed on placards, streets, building walls, etc. that give us information. Have you ever noticed all of the signs around you? They are everywhere. I started paying close attention to signs a few weeks ago and have been amazed at the variety and of types and uses of signs. There is much here for us to mine photographically!
Types and Uses of Signs
To prep for this topic, I started observing and categorizing the types and uses of the signs around me and that I’ve captured in the past.
Signs are used to inform…
to identify or specify a location…
Do you start to see what I mean? I bet you can add even more to this list. Signs don’t have to have words either. Symbols often work just as well for their intended purpose.
Relative to Place
Signs are one of the “aspects of place” we talk about in my class, A Sense of Place. The language, imagery and surroundings of a sign all give you an idea of where the photo was taken. The signs can be the main subject or part of the background, but either way they are great indicator of place, providing the viewer clues to the location.
Signs can also highlight cultural differences. Instead of the bright green, reflective street signs we have in the US on every street corner to make things easy for navigation, the Italian street signs are often small marble placards on the side of a building. Impossible to use for navigation in a vehicle, but they look much more beautiful. A definite clue to cultural differences between Italy and the US.
A sign is created and placed with a specific purpose, but the age-old tradition of modifying signs to give them a different meaning is wonderful for photographers. The best modified signs are often more subtle than the typical spray-paint graffiti. These signs make you look twice!
All around Europe you will see these stickers on “Do Not Enter” signs. I especially loved this one, where the guy is “carrying” papers tucked under his arm along with the bar.
On a family bike ride recently, I came across this modified sign telling visitors to GO AWAY. My husband and son continued to ride ahead, eventually noticing I was gone and wondering what happened to me. “Just a funny sign I had to photograph,” I explained to their worried faces when I caught up, “Sorry!” To my surprise, they hadn’t even seen the sign that stopped me.
We can create some wonderful images with signs, changing the sign’s intended meaning as we frame the photograph. I often like to capture one or two words of the sign with some other context to create a new story.
By framing this image with only the word “ART” and the open door and stairway visible behind, I intended the message, “The door is always open to art.” I think the sign actually said, “Art Studio.” Capturing the full sign would have eliminated this message.
The “Dream More” was added by some creative person to the exit sign of a parking lot. By framing it without the giant “Exit” to the right of the arrow, I focus in on the message of the added text.
One of the most fun ways to use signs is to capture humor or irony. The viewer has to look at the whole and then digest the contradictions within the frame to get the message. Of course, you as the photographer have to see it first, to create the image!
We can also create new messages during our post processing, combining images or words from various signs. These words both came from an old Levi Strauss ad on the side of a building, but by capturing them individually and combining them in my post-processing I create a new message.
Are you starting to see the photographic possibilities with signs? Chances are, you already have photographed many signs in different contexts, without even thinking about it.
We’d all love to see how you use signs! Go out on a photowalk or look through your archive and then come back and share with us your use of signs. I can’t wait to see what you’ve got!