Faded ad signs become ghostly art

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This is a biweekly series about art and artists in the region. Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts serves the community through arts education, exhibitions and artist resources.

It may be called the Steel City, but Pittsburgh is a city made of bricks.

So says Will Zavala, documentary filmmaker, professor and project director of "Palimpsests: Ghost Signs of Pittsburgh," a new photo exhibit of faded advertising signs on old brick buildings. The show features 34 images by photographer Kelly Bogel, and it is on view at Filmmakers Galleries in Oakland.

"Masonry is the most prominent human-made surface in the neighborhoods, the commercial areas and Downtown," explains Mr. Zavala. "And early in the last century, many of these large brick walls were used like canvases for hand-painted advertisements."

But by the 1960s, freestanding billboards had largely replaced this form of signage, and most of the iconic ads had disappeared.

The painted signs have weathered unevenly. Some pigments have held up, while some have disappeared to reveal an earlier sign (or the original brick) underneath. The word "palimpsest," used in the title of the exhibit, means something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earliest form.

To photograph the old signs, Ms. Bogel used a large-format film camera, then digitally scanned the film to make prints. The large analog photographs capture their decaying, ghost-like appearance. She became acutely aware of the "ephemeral existence" of the signs, she says, when she went back to reshoot one of them a few months later. "The entire building had been demolished since the original shoot."

The project, which began in 2012, includes many local neighborhoods and towns, and the exhibit features a wall-mounted map with pushpins that mark sign locations.

In addition, a looping video shows viewers approximately 80 more locations that were scouted for the project, plus an amusing animated short that illustrates how workers created such large-scale outdoor signs. Called "Painting a Wall Sign," it's by Aytac Akkan Karaguzel, one of Mr. Zavala's former film students.

As a documentary filmmaker Mr. Zavala had long been interested in capturing the signs before they were gone. Once he met Ms. Bogel -- who was earning a certificate in photography at Pittsburgh Filmmakers -- and he saw her work, he asked her if she wanted to be part of the project. The rest is history.

The show runs through May 16. Details: www.pittsburghpalimpsests.com.

 


-- By Carol O'Sullivan / for PF/PCA

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