A visual artist traveling across the nation and world stops in Cincinnati to bring a fading advertisement briefly back to life. In this update, Craig Winslow's Light Capsules crosses paths with my foray into documenting the city's "ghost signs."
|- Hand painted advertisements in the background of a Cincinnati bus terminal. Photo by Esther Bubley, courtesy of the Library of Congress.|
If you haven’t had a chance to pick up or read Fading Ads of Cincinnati (and I promise this isn’t all just one big promo for my book), let me briefly explain my interest in these “ghost signs.”
I was aware of them, thought they were visually/historically interesting, and would occasionally snap a photograph. However, a larger story on them, a post here, was just sitting on the long list of ideas for QC/D content. It wasn’t exactly the highest priority. As the book will tell you in greater depth, I was recruited to write about them and after some initial hesitation, I went for it. I ended up falling in love with fading advertisements, or “ghost signs” as they’re sometimes called (a term I somewhat disagree with). Through the book’s research I was able to meet and talk with people like Tod Swormstedt of the American Sign Museum, Bill Rinehart (the area’s foremost expert on where you can find these signs), Carl Solway (whose father’s business name still adorns a former warehouse in OTR), Frank Jump (author of the New York edition and documenter everywhere he goes), as well as many others. I got to hear so many great stories, share many perspectives, and then document these pieces of history in my own way. These signs are such an interesting piece of the urban fabric and connect us to our civic history throughout multiple time periods.
After I wrapped up writing, had the final drafts reviewed, received the published copies, saw it go on sale, and did some events; I thought maybe my experience with these artifacts would end there. These ads continually wear though, slowly slipping out of existence - they're very much alive rather than “ghosts.” Since the publication, some have been lost while some are still clinging to their surfaces, still trying to advertise something while inadvertently telling another story. It wasn’t possible to fit all of them into the book, and I (as well as others) still come across new ones all the time. Not to mention, now I find them everywhere I go, from Dayton, Ohio to Petoskey, Michigan. I still get to meet people involved in their story too.
|- Portrait of Craig Winslow while he toured Cincinnati.|
Enter Craig Winslow, a designer hailing originally from Portland, Maine who is representing Adobe as a Creative Resident. He shot me an email, saying he’d be in Cincinnati soon and was working on a project to document these signs through projection mapping. He included a link to a video demonstration of his work.
Through the History Press’ Fading Ads series, these signs have been documented in photographs from all over the country. Craig though was taking a new approach to telling their story. He was (and still is at the time of this writing) creating something interactive. Something you could come see, take part in, and then relive and share later. He was was creating a new insight into their past life.
I loved it.
|- Fading Advertisement off of Freeman Ave in the West End.|
When Craig got to Cincinnati we made some time to meet up and tour around. Consequently, searching out these signs is a great way to show someone what the city’s fabric, atmosphere, and lesser known areas are like - a more honest look outside of nightlife and tourist destinations. In pursuit of history and visual storytelling, you’ll see sides of cities not commonly advertised or promoted. He had done his research, knew quite a bit about Cincinnati and which signs he wanted to see, taking the time to visit the American Sign Museum and also meet with the aforementioned ghost sign documenter, Bill Rinehart while he was here. Our first stop was one of the signs in my book: one in the West End that’s actually several different messages painted over each other and now all wearing through together. It advertises carpets, an address, an ice cream parlor, and household goods amongst other things. If you’re ever cruising down Freeman Ave., it’s hard to miss, prominently displayed above an empty lot on the side of a brick building.
|- Detail of the Freeman Ave sign.|
We wandered for awhile, swinging by a few more, trying to find ones that would best suit his project. We needed a space where he could set up a generator and projectors after getting some high quality photos and mapping out the sign. There also needed to be enough information contained within the sign or from a historical image that would allow him to showcase what an advertisement would've looked like in its prominence.
|- Craig photographing a sign off of Central Ave.|
We came across one that in all my research and time in the city, I hadn’t seen before. We spotted it from several blocks away coming down Central Ave. With such a visible location and not much obstructing it, you could see why this location would’ve been great for an advertiser.
You could still make out several words in the bricks: “diamond watches & jewelry cor. clark & central ave,” “buy your ___ from ___ Ma______.” From larger text a few stories in the air to tiny letters at the bottom by the street, this sign was loaded with old communication.
|- Detail of the Central Ave. sign.|
Craig ended up settling on a sign that was featured in the book though, one of the more prominent ones and located in the heart of downtown:
|- The Sam Caldwell sign as it appeared in the summer of 2015 and featured in Fading Ads of Cincinnati.|
The Sam Caldwell sign is probably one of the city's most visible. It sits on a westward facing wall across from the public library on Walnut and 9th. It’s easily accessible and allowed plenty of room for Craig to eventually set up his projection.
The sign itself is one of the last remaining works of Chuck Keiger, a World War Two veteran whose hand painted work adorned all sides of the city from billboards to show cards to the advertisements at Crosley Field. This iconic fading advertisement adorned the building that was once home to Sam Caldwell & Co., which left as a tenant in 1970 and has since gone out of business. Keiger passed away in 2011, but his sign still lives on, touting his legacy as Queen City "wall dog." His son, Dale, wrote a beautiful tribute to his late father in 2014.
|- The Sam Caldwell sign at night before the projectors shine on it.|
I found a small crowd still gathered around by the time I got off work and made it downtown around 10:30. In just a few days via social media and word of mouth, a good amount of people had come to see Craig’s setup. He was using a gas generator to power a MacBook Pro and two projectors. Craig had used a combination of software and historical research to piece together how the sign once looked. Using projection mapping, he displayed an overlay of how the sign had appeared when the paint was fresh and vibrant, not weathered and chipping:
|- Sam Caldwell sign brought back to life with light and projection mapping. Compare to above photo.|
The projection would shine back and forth across the ghost sign, hold in position, highlight certain areas, display some historical factoids, and light up the entire side of the building at times. Even with some of the deterioration and discoloration of the bricks still shining through, you could still get a sense of how prominent and bright this sign must’ve been, back when it was created.
|- Craig documenting his work to produce into his Light Capsule series.|
As the crowd thinned out, you could just stand there in the “quiet” of downtown, just taking it in. Cars and busses occasionally rumbled by, the streetcar passed through dinging its bell, a few conversations could be heard in the distance. There though, on a muggy and humid night in a parking lot, the Sam Caldwell sign lived again, if only for a few hours. If you stared at it long enough, you could get a slight sense of a different time in the city’s history by just peering into the bricks.
When it's all said and done, Craig sums up his experiences and documentation with short videos referred to as light capsules. They document his time in a city, how he briefly brings these signs back to life, and how it all connects. His projections capture the story of these signs in a way that photographs and words can’t always convey.
His light capsule documenting Cincinnati featuring not only his work with the Caldwell sign, but the American Sign Museum as well:
I’m grateful for these signs, for what they represent to the city’s past, for how they dot the urban landscape and give the city some character. I’m grateful that I had someone give me the incentive to take on the book and that I could document them at a particular moment in their fading life, before even more of them disappear.
I’m most grateful though that the story is continuing. That people still care about these things, care about finding them and seeing them. I’m grateful people like Craig are highlighting them along with the other Fading Ads authors and anyone who happens to spot one and shoot a photo or just merely look up and acknowledge their existence. I’m grateful that I keep seeing them everywhere I go.
One day, they may all be gone. They fade, they die, they disappear. Despite the book having been written, the story of these urban hieroglyphics (and even those found outside of Cincinnati) will continue to be documented on QC/D.
Ghosts of the past maybe, but their stories are very much alive.
Craig is continuing this project, taking it across the country and even overseas. Follow along with his work at the links below and if you're interested in seeing more of Cincinnati’s signs: grab a book.
Follow Craig's project:
Light Capsules of the other signs he's documented.