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Lost And Found


     Twenty years ago I began photographing surfaces as a way to compile visual research for my work in scenic design and painting. In 1996, my bride and I took a train ride across the country on our honeymoon.  Along the way we watched America roll by and realized that a painted advertisement on a building only lasts as long as it is able to endure the elements or survive the fate of the building.  This trip sparked the idea to photograph fading advertisements because I did not know if they would be there tomorrow. The companies responsible for the painted advertisements and the painters who painted them never knew how long their work would remain.  


     My exploration into the history of advertising through sign painting revealed terms like “Wall Dogs” which is a term used for professional sign painters and muralists, past and present.  Wall Dogs provided design and painting services for businesses and traveled around to small towns with their trucks and rigs.  The layers of advertising on a single wall is now known as a “Ghost Sign” which describes a collage of type-face and images.  Ghost signs are best defined by the word, palimpsest which means, a very old document on which the original writing has been erased and replaced with new writing, something that has changed over time and shows evidence of that change.  I became fascinated with this visual phenomenon and it became my photography subject.   My photographs cover a range from the earliest painted advertisements to newest painted murals and as I continue the hunt, the collection of photos grows every year.  Lost and Found is not only about finding vanishing ghost signs, but it is also about honoring a diminishing art-form and supporting it’s rejuvenation.


     These images are priceless to me.  They capture a moment in time.  They are life journals of American culture through advertising.  These landmarks get discovered and vanish every day, but ultimately this way of advertising is dying out.  I would like to remember them and share that memory with as many people as possible


     As an artist I know what it feels like to be zen in the act of painting.  There is a connection between the brush and the canvas.  You can visualize the outcome before you even begin.  You are surfing on a wave of process that takes you to the finished product, and in sign painting, this is a unique process dealing with specific tools, techniques and materials.  As the artist, you are merely the vehicle for the energy flowing through you.  When I look at painted signs, I think about that energy wave.  The many artists that were employed to paint these advertisements, murals, or expressions.  The hours, the danger and skill, but often little recognition.  I think about the passage of time.  The many years of wear and tear as I fixate on the natural pixelization of brick, wood grain or metal working their way through the layers of paint.  There  is a beautiful complexity of art and time vanishing before our eyes.


    My wife and children have endured many years of my documentation.  I thank them for their love and patience when stopping on the wrong side of the tracks to photograph signs.  I also thank the many advertisers and sign painters that have inspired me in this quest.  Advertisements attract us because we recognize a certain concept, slogan or logo.  The memory connects us to our past.  It is the job of the advertiser and artist to help us associate products and images with memories. As you look at these photos, think about: the subject(s), the social commentary of the area, the political implications of the times, or simply the texture and irregular exterior surfaces in which they were painted on.  




Please enjoy Lost And Found : A Sign Photography Book

Happy Traveling!  Derek Stenborg

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