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Neon Signs: Documenting History in Columbus

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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What do Wonder Bread, The Rice Bowl, The Peanut Shoppe, and The North Market have in Common? Give up? They’ve all got large, memorable, historic neon signs on their buildings.

Perhaps you’ve noticed a few of these around town, but other neon signs often get overlooked by most passersby. Not by Paul DaSilva, though. He’s spent years paying very close attention to the lost art of neon signage, and has been slowly cataloging everything on his Columbus Ohio Neon blog. Paul was kind enough to answer a few questions about his unusual hobby and share some of his personal favorites with us.

Q) Can you give us a little history about your blog and your hobby of neon photography?

A) I have been fascinated by roadside art and advertising since I was six years old when we took a family trip to Florida by car. The old signs and the animated neon amazed me and when we returned home (to Boston) I noticed that same art could also be seen in the city. While it may have started out as a childhood fascination, it never completely went away, but sadly, the signs themselves have went away. I started photographing such living history several years ago, but only seriously started collecting images within the last two. I started the photoblog in late 2007. As of now, I have taken and collected thousands of photos, but I have about six hundred up on my blog.

Q) Sounds like some dedicated work. How’s the reaction to the blog been? I imagine there’s got to be some other neon fans in the city.

A) The reaction has been mixed, and in all honesty I have not publicized the blog as much as I would like, as I do have life outside of neon signs. Some say it is weird. Some love it. Right now I have a few dedicated readers, but it is still in the realm of underground for the most part. Most people do not use the blog format for documenting photographs, opting instead for photo file holding sites like flickr or photobucket. While I also maintain some of my photos on those, I like the blog format because there is a story behind almost every sign, which is the aim of my blog. This is not just a simple showcase of my photography. Believe me, I am far from a professional photographer. I have come across a few blogs from other cities, but few which are dedicated to neon in those cities. Columbus actually has several other photographers whom are interested in neon and its history.

Q) Do you think the creation or display of neon signage is a lost artform?

A) I do think neon is a dying, if not a lost art form. The main reasons for the death of neon is the cost associated with maintaining neon signs, which many businesses, especially in tough economic times, can not afford, or cannot or will not put the investment into their maintenance. The fact that LED signage is generally seen as a cheaper alternative to neon attracts many new businesses. While I understand their reasoning, for deciding to use such signs in their advertising, cheaper does not necessarily equal better. I think true old fashioned neon captures the attention of customers much more than LED or even cheaper plastic back lit signs. I have seen the signs made close up in a neon sign manufacturing facility and I can tell you, it is an amazing process. I have yet to actually get into the field of making them.

Q) Well, after browsing through most of your 600+ photos myself, I’ve discovered a problem… what happens when you’ve documented all of the signs in Columbus? Are you going to start making road trips, or just call the project “complete”?

A) Good question. I hesitate to say that the project will ever be complete. But, there are only so many neighborhoods and so many signs in Columbus. When I started the blog I intended occasional road trips to be a part of the blog anyway, and I guess, once I have hit most of the areas of the city, there will be more focus on that. Also, I have done a few sets that were establishment specific. While most of my focus has been on neon visible from the road or street, a large number of signs exist purely for the patrons of those establishments themselves. Many bars and restaurants have more signage inside than on their windows or storefronts. The neon in those is definitely a major element of the atmosphere of those particular establishments.

Q) Good to hear you won’t be calling it quits. So… what’s your favorite Columbus neighborhood for neon photography?

A) While even the most generic and bland neighborhoods have an example of excellent neon art, I have a few favorite areas for neon. For classical neon signage and vintage signs from the golden age of neon (1940s-60s), E. Main Street and W. Broad Street are full of old gems. As far as sheer volume of neon, Downtown, The Short North, and OSU’s campus area are all great choices. The south side, Parsons and S. High Street are full of old memories, or “ghost” neon. “Ghost” neon is simply a neon sign which has had it’s neon tubing removed at some point in the past, leaving behind the actual sign itself or converted into a florescent installation with plastic covering. Some of the ghost neon in that part of town has probably not been “alive” for at least 20-30 years.

Q) Have you ever had any strange encounters with anyone on the street while out taking photos? I imagine you must at least get the occasional strange look.

A) Most of my experiences have been incident free and most people don’t even notice I am doing it. I have even run into a couple people photographing the same sign. The only objection I ever received was near OSU, when I was photographing the neon signage at a tattoo parlor. An employee from a neighboring business thought I was videotaping the inside of their store. When I explained to him that the neon sign of the tattoo parlor was about ten times more interesting than his neon-less storefront he just rolled his eyes and went back in.

Q) Ha! Sounds like he wasn’t a fan I guess. Are there any neighborhoods or areas that you’ve not gotten around to yet that you might be featuring soon?

A) Actually there are a few areas I have yet to cover on the blog. I usually like to scope out an area before I bring the camera and take photos, so I can get a good idea of what there is to take and where I should be shooting. I think I have covered maybe 2/3 to 3/4 of the city’s neighborhoods, but definitely not all the signs. Often if I miss out (because that particular sign is out of order, turned off, or whatever) I will go back. Sometimes I will just be driving through and spot something I somehow missed when I did do that area’s tour.

I also have a few film/documentary type projects I am working on involving neon, and Columbus history for this year. I would like to do more roadtrips and get some of the exurbs of Columbus as well. Of course, adding to my own neon collection is a goal for this year as well.

Sounds great. Looking forward to the updates!

Paul’s Columbus Ohio Neon Blog can be found here: columbusneon.blogspot.com.

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