Photographs & text by Tom Bland

My parents are graphic designers, working as a partnership from their home in Northumberland, England. I grew up watching them go about their work on a big drawing board using a scalpel, spray mount, kappa board, acetate and Letraset. During the nineties Apple Macs became much more widely available and affordable, and as such my parents’ design methods changed forever. Like most graphic designers they became fully Mac-based, but when I think back to how they used to work it never ceases to amaze me how they were able to create what they did and work that way.

Ghost signs (as they are most commonly known) began to catch my eye when I moved to London, and I inevitably found it fascinating to think about how they’d been created and the level of skill and craftsmanship that was involved. I soon noticed how attractively some of the signs were ageing. I was seeing layers of typography, paint, colour – and combined with the texture of the crumbling and flaking materials, many of them were appealing to me as looking like the contemporary design I was seeing on the shelves of London’s design book shops (Ray Gun magazine being one key example). I felt that if these faded remnants of the past I was seeing around me were used on new book jackets or album covers they would stand up really well against a new piece of work, with the signs having evolved and aged completely naturally in ways that contemporary designers or illustrators were often emulating at the time.
After taking some early photographs of the signs I soon realised it could become an interesting series to develop, not only because of my personal interest but because in a sense I was preserving the signs – which I had noticed were liable to disappear or be defaced in an instant. I’m most attracted by the signs that have multiple layers of typography and street level access because ultimately I want the signs I shoot to fill my frame and appear as flat as possible. This often isn’t possible though so sometimes I’ll photograph a sign in a manner that adds a sense of scale – a passing person, or an adjacent building.

Aside from the design and craftsmanship elements, I love how ghost signs temporarily transport you back into the past, to a time when there were no digital billboards cluttering our view of the city. I often find myself wishing I didn’t see the visual pollution of advertisements everywhere I turn and wonder what it would take for more of the world to emulate cities like São Paulo or states like Maine and ban outdoor advertising.

Sign of the Times is the ongoing documentation of a certain graphic breed of ghost sign, referencing both my background and upbringing, and my love/hate relationship with new technology. The project now comprises of photographs mostly taken around England, Scotland and the United States, with additions to follow.