Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Photographer Cynthia Connolly captures the faded glamor of the city's rooftop signage—even in Virginia, New York, and D.C.
The typefaces that people used to use to make signs for buildings—the old signs, the kind of signs that people fight to preserve today—were not the same from coast to coast. The lettering you see on the West Coast is different from the look on the East Coast, says Cynthia Connolly, a photographer who would know. She's been shooting signs on buildings across America for years.
"On the East Coast, all the fonts are these sans-serif fonts that are kind of boring," she says. The photographer grew up in Los Angeles, where the type was more stylish and unabashed: "thick-and-thins," Connolly calls them. The signs for buildings like the Fontenoy. The Chateau Mormont. The Roosevelt Hotel.
"They're kind of tacky, in a way," Connolly says.
"Letters on Top of Buildings," an ongoing photo series, is Connolly's effort to recapture the Hollywood signs that inspired her growing up. The series includes photos from across the nation, including several from Virginia and Washington, D.C., where she's lived since the early 1980s.
The J. Paul Getty Museum just acquired "Letters on Top of Buildings," bringing the series home to the city that inspired it. The photos will join a collection of works that take L.A. as their theme or subject matter in some fashion.
"All of my photography is about my childhood, those things that got burned onto my brain," the artist says. "I’m constantly trying to recollect my childhood memories of Los Angeles. Resurrect them, I suppose."
Connolly prefers the typography of Hollywood building signs to any other city's. She says they've got a European flair, inspired by the Fraktur family of typefaces.
"In Los Angeles, the signs are on top of old apartment buildings, which is totally glamorous to me," Connolly says. "I can imagine these signs coming up as the city came up. Why would you need a big sign? These were the big buildings!"
But most of Connolly's photographs hail from Brooklyn, Tucson, Richmond, D.C., and other places; only two in this series were shot in L.A., both of them recently. "Letters on Top of Buildings" arrives in Los Angeles through a roundabout route, literally and figuratively.
Connolly has shown works from the series at Civilian Art Projects and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In fact, the photographs were acquired by the Corcoran after her show there last year. But then that museum fell apart, and the works were returned to the artist. Civilian's Jayme McLellan and the collector who had bought the photos and deeded them to the Corcoran were willing to try somewhere else.
"I like to shoot for the top, so I thought, why not try the Getty?" Connolly says.
Connolly credits Los Angeles vernacular as the starting point for her work. But the signage is not the only L.A. influence on her photography. There's a quality that makes all her photos look like West Coast pictures, even shots from West Virginia. It's in the composition: Connolly draws on the same diagonals and vectors as L.A.'s favorite son, the painter Ed Ruscha.
Sure, they share a mutual interest in text; but Connolly (and Ruscha, for that matter) will tell you that the words themselves are beside the point. "It's not the sign," she says, "it's the composition of it in the frame."
Connolly can bridge the gulf between the building signage on the East Coast and the letters on the West Coast. But when she went to Europe, she couldn't find Los Angeles anywhere. Her photos are distinctly American.
"I tried to shoot photos of letters on top of buildings in Europe, and they’re not the same," Connolly says. "They’re typographically different. For some reason, the ones in Europe, I’m not interested in. It doesn’t even work."
She tried to shoot more L.A. photos, too. "I did this whole map," she says. "In two days I went to 20-some buildings. But there's the time of day, the kind of sky. You can't force it."
When it works, though, she's able to find Los Angeles in rare places.
"I go by the [Morris Miller] sign [in D.C.], and I think, 'That does not look like the photograph.' It’s totally glamorous in the photograph. You find the part that you want to document, and you get rid of the rest—somehow."