Frank Jump noticed his first ghost sign in Harlem. It was a towering, four-story tall series of blue ads painted on red brick, hawking a kind of all-purpose snake oil sold in the United States into the 1920s. Omega Oil, for sunburns, weak backs, stiff joints, sore muscles and athletes. Ten cents for a trial bottle.
“I nearly dropped to my knees," Jump says. He was, at the time – about 15 years ago – looking for inspiration for a documentary photography class project around the theme of "the rise and fall of New York City," or "the fall and rise of New York City."
Jump's been photographing the city’s ghost signs ever since, and he’s now corralled the images into a new book, Fading Ads of New York City. The images, painted years ago onto the side of buildings all over the city, sell solutions for everything a body might need: cure-alls, snacks, clothes, drinks and laundry products, fur vaults, speakeasies and even undertakers. Jump spoke with Atlantic Cities this week about some of his favorite images, what they say about the history of the city that hosts them, and why he was first drawn to fading ads not long after he was diagnosed with HIV.
"This class and this project and these signs changed the course of my life," he says. "And it gave me a metaphor for my own long survival with HIV. I never expected to live as long as I had then, and neither had the signs I was photographing. Away I went, and it became not just a labor of love, but an obsession."
Below is an edited transcript of some of our conversation.
Was that Omega Oil sign really the first faded ad you ever saw in the city, or just the first one you stopped to notice?
Maybe subconsciously I’ve seen them before, because I had photographed often walls, walls in the Netherlands, and I would photograph billboards. I’ve always found them interesting. But I never consciously noticed them until that day, in February of 1997. And I didn’t even know they were called "ghost signs." I called them fading ads, and naively created the Fading Ad Campaign website, only to find out a year or so later that they were called ghost signs. But I never really liked the term “ghost signs” because my metaphor is about survival. Ghosts represent something dead, and I see them as something that survived.
Once you noticed that Omega Oil sign, did you suddenly start to see these ads all over the city?
Once you’ve noticed them, then you see the whole world through the eye of the fading ad. You start seeing them everywhere. You start seeing the faded words that come up only when it rains for some reason. You start looking at things on walls that you think look like fading ads but really aren’t. They’re just patterns of light. I just see the whole world through this fading ad lens now, and a lot of people do, once they start seeing them, they start looking for them.
Why do you think people react so strongly to these things?
It’s nostalgia. I quote Gloria Steinem in the book. She was on the Bill Maher show and she was talking about Congress. Someone mentioned nostalgia, and she said "nostalgia is another form of obstructionism." That really hit me in the gut and made me look at nostalgia in a different way.
If we keep holding onto the past, we’re not going to move forward. I think we look at these signs, and we remember our childhood, we remember the products our mothers bought. We remember ourselves in a time when we were much more vital, younger, much more limber, able to scale the sides of walls to get on roofs, take these photographs a little easier. In that respect, I think people have a little nostalgic yearning that these signs sort of fulfill.
At the same time, I think we want to hold onto some of the past because we’re rushing so quickly forward, especially when it comes to real estate. Things are being torn down before there’s any chance of historic preservation.
I think these signs also kind of harken to the whole philosophy about historical preservation. There are towns like New York, but even small towns across America that, for the most part, these signs are the only thing left to illustrate to young people what went on in the past.
It’s such a digital nation and globe, where everything is on the Internet – I love it, I got master’s in technology because I wanted to move with technology – but at the same time, there’s something very tactile about painted signs. They’re painted by hand, they’re painted by a person. It’s an artists rendering. It’s much more personal, something that could last a long time, a century and a half perhaps, if you’re lucky. Banner ads on websites don’t last very long unless you take screen shots and back that up and back that up. Things are becoming a lot more ephemeral.
You said one of these ads, a political campaign for “Lindsay for Mayor,” was covered up for a long time by a different billboard that only recently came down.
That’s just an example of what’s hiding behind billboards in New York City. What’s hiding between buildings. I’m sure one day in Lower Manhattan, a building is going to come down, and there’s going to be an old Dutch-painted ad, because it’s just bound to happen.
We’ll find something from 1640, advertising Amstel beer. This is just an example of how things just reveal themselves quite randomly on pretty much a regular basis.
You’ve gotten to know these ads so well that you can now spot fakes among them, correct?
There are a couple of phonies in there that fooled me for a while. Not just myself, but through the network of urban archeologists, we have finally uncovered the idea that some of these might have been painted as studio backdrops [for movies]. The Planters peanut one in particular.
I can’t imagine this sign being from 1910, 1915 – when Planters peanut first started advertising nationally – and being so red, and being so vibrant, because it’s got a sudden exposure, the sun rises every day on this sign, it would have faded by time. There’s a lot of graffiti on it. For some reason, the ones that are really old, graffiti artists tend to leave alone.
Film studios must be tapping into the same idea that a fading sign can immediately transport you in a past era in the city’s history.
Just like in the Gangs of New York. That film has a lot of painted signs in the movie. All the old westerns have those saloon signs, "feed," "hay," "bread for 5 cents." it gives authenticity to a backdrop. And if you kind of make that small quantum leap from that sentiment, it kind of gives authenticity to your city. It makes you know that this is a place where people had lived.