Photo essay // Signs of long-lost times

My mission for Recapturist, an online gallery, is to capture, preserve and share the increasingly endangered beauty of vintage signs through photography.  I find myself especially drawn to the Googie-inspired neon signs that many local businesses favored during the mid-1900s. These once highly conspicuous roadside treasures were easily identified by their bright colors and bold features including large sweeping arrows, pronounced geometric shapes and sometimes even space-themed details.

Despite their effectiveness in grabbing the attention of potential customers, Googie signs were eventually considered passé and many fell into disrepair or were torn down altogether. Although this mid-century modern architectural movement originated in Southern California, its influence can be seen in advertising for motels, bars, restaurants, liquor stores and bowling alleys in almost every corner of the country. As a result, much of my free time is spent exploring the nearly forgotten two-lane highways and back roads of America on a never ending quest to document these signs before they all fall victim to progress.  

Most of what I shoot is unplanned — simply stumbled upon during my travels. The wonder of what faded, worn-out relic I will find in the next town or around the next bend is part of the thrill I get from the entire process. These journeys also expose me to people and places that I would otherwise never encounter, and supplementing the history of each sign with these stories deeply enriches the overall experience.

I’ve been passionate about photographing vintage signs ever since I took my camera to shoot the old motels that decorate (the infamously rundown) Aurora Avenue in North Seattle one day back in 2006. Although I had driven past them dozens of times, I didn’t fully recognize the personality and character of these neglected landmarks until viewing them up close and in isolation through my camera lens. Only recently, as a Southwest Minneapolis resident, have I combined this fascination with my love of road trips through small town America to produce something substantive and suitable for broader consumption.

At a minimum, my hope is to help others better appreciate the artistry, history and craftsmanship they likely pass everyday without a second thought.  Ultimately, however, I’d like to help business owners take the often costly steps necessary to preserve and renovate these signs so they can be enjoyed by future generations in their natural habitat … as well as through photography, of course. An online gallery of my work can be seen at recapturist.com.

Bill Rose is a documentary photographer who strives to find beauty in overlooked and seemingly mundane settings. He and his wife Teri now make their home in Linden Hills. He recently launched Recapturist.com, an online gallery devoted to showcasing and selling his vintage sign photography.