Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

My latest Flickr album features photographs of signs from across the United States taken by Carol M. Highsmith from the late 20th century to the present day. In this blog post I’d like to focus on some older photos of signs taken for the Farm Security Administration in the late 1930s and early 1940s by John Vachon. Vachon is not as well-known as Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, or Walker Evans, but his output for the FSA is larger than the combined work of those three photographers.

In 1940, in Woodbine, Iowa, Vachon photographed a deteriorating billboard. His two close-up images show the poster peeling away to show the billboard below:

Billboard, Woodbine, Iowa. Photo by John Vachon, May 1940. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a05710

Advertising, Woodbine, Iowa. Photo by John Vachon, May 1940. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a05709

It seems to me that Vachon made new art from the damaged billboard. The extreme close-up of the mouth and eye is as good as any Pop Art from the 1960s. Near Mansfield, Ohio in 1941, Vachon photographed another billboard that had seen better days. A young girl from an earlier billboard peeks through the advertisement for beer:

[Untitled photo, possibly related to: Advertising near Mansfield, Ohio]. Photo by John Vachon, July 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a32854

Advertising near Mansfield, Ohio. Photo by John Vachon, July 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a32846

Both of these sets of images show how billboards were often pasted one on top of the other. Another Vachon photo documents this process:

Billboard on the courthouse lawn, Omaha, Nebraska. Photo by John Vachon, November 1938. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a03970

These photos show that Vachon had a great eye for detail. As was noted in the comments of a recent blog post, because his work often defied categorization, he was given his own category in the FSA subject classification system. (Vachon Photos – .96928) As close-ups of billboards would have been difficult to classify (assign to a specific subject), the three billboard photos that were printed for the FSA file were classified as “Vachon Photos.” For as long as I’ve worked with the FSA Collection I’ve been drawn to Vachon’s work. He often focuses on details or frames images in a different way.

For example, instead of showing the entire wall that includes the pillar, the alliteratively titled “Privy pump and pillar,” also from Woodbine, Iowa, and also classified as a part of “Vachon Photos,” shows just a corner of the building and some of the surrounding area. I think the photo can even qualify as including a sign:

Privy pump and pillar. Photo by John Vachon, May 1940. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a05707

I will leave you with one last Vachon sign photograph. This is a much more straightforward image of the famous Camel Cigarettes billboard in New York City, with Vachon catching the pilot mid puff:

New York, New York. Camel cigarette advertisement at Times Square. Photo by John Vachon, February 1943. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d14368

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3 Comments

  1. lentigogirl
    September 7, 2022 at 11:47 am

    The Library of Congress Flickr site contains a lot of amazing albums, including the one Jan references! https://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/albums

  2. Cheryl Lederle
    September 8, 2022 at 9:26 am

    “Do this, don’t do that – can’t you read the sign?”
    Vachon has long been one of my favorite FSA photographers, and I appreciate reading the context and background, as well as seeing his work highlighted. Thanks, Jan!

  3. Martha H Kennedy
    September 10, 2022 at 10:07 am

    A fascinating and well-done blog post that makes me want to explore John Vachon’s work. Thank you!

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