The sign hunters: in search of vintage Australian outdoor advertising

Once viewed by some as mere marketing, vintage hand-painted and hand-crafted signs increasingly are being celebrated as fine examples of commercial art and design and important markers of Australian social history.

Brady Michaels and Dale Campisi spent a year on the road travelling the length and breadth of Australia looking for vintage advertising. The result is Signs of Australia: Vintage Signs from the City to the Outback, a remarkably diverse collection of photographs taken by Michaels and accompanied by Campisi’s thoughtful commentary.

Michaels, a photographer and illustrator, and Campisi, an author, curator and publisher, are partners in The Gents, a multi-faceted enterprise dedicated to reviving hitherto neglected aspects of Australian culture and history. The Gents produce a range of publications, exhibitions, tours and other ventures.

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A few of the more famous signs in Signs of Australia – such as the Skipping Girl Vinegar animated neon sign in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond – have become heritage protected long after their utility in commercial terms has expired.

Other vintage signs equally deserving of serious attention are less well-known and not always easy to capture. “One iconic sign that initially eluded us was the Dingo Flour sign in Fremantle, Western Australia”, recalls Michaels. “As we got closer to the west coast on our big drive from Sydney, we keenly anticipated the sight of a four-storey red dingo on an old flour factory wall. We arrived just in time to see the last corrugated iron panel being taken from the building, soon finding out that the sign was being removed for restoration. It was bad timing for us, but great news that this fantastic sign is now preserved for the future.”

“We’ve been able to capture many signs that have since disappeared from buildings, streets and roadsides, and that’s a good feeling.” – Brady Michaels

The sign did not elude the sign hunters altogether. “A return trip allowed us to photograph the landmark freshly restored and looking bright and bold as ever – no longer in the business of advertising Dingo brand flour but still guiding locals and visitors around Fremantle.”

While the Dingo Flour sign has been saved, Michaels and Campisi reached others in the nick of time. “That’s the thing about sign hunting: you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time. We’ve been able to capture many signs that have since disappeared from buildings, streets and roadsides, and that’s a good feeling.”

According to Michaels, the 500 photos chosen for Signs of Australia represent a fraction of the total number he took for the project. “We began the Signs of Australia journey with a trip to South Australia in April 2016, completing our final road trip from Cairns to Sydney via the Northern Territory a year later. In the end, we covered over 40,000 kilometres on the road. The result is a photographic database of thousands of vintage Australian signs from Australia’s cities, towns and remote places.”

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No sign exists in isolation from the site where it was placed, and any form of visual advertising obviously is meant to be seen. Michaels says he was concerned not only to document the sign but also convey a sense of the location. “The sign setting plays an important role in my image-making, in the form of buildings and urban, industrial and natural landscapes. These images – while referencing documentary photography – are carefully composed artistic works with a focus on the ordinary and the mundane details of life. It is from this viewpoint that the beauty in the everyday emerges. My photographic style is minimal, bold and planar, referencing the graphic nature of the subject matter.”

In terms of form, Michaels says the project brief for Signs of Australia covered everything “from hand-painted advertisements to 1980s neon and everything in between”. The book forms part of an international revival of interest in so-called ghost signs, which reappear as well as disappear as the walls of old buildings are demolished or else are exposed when the more recent building next to them is torn down. Recently, an entire wall promoting the now vanished Peapes men’s clothing store was revealed in George Street, Sydney for the first time in decades with the unrelated demolition of the 1960s office building next to it.

There is a craftsmanship and authenticity about vintage signs that may be missing from today’s generic, digitally generated advertising.

Much of the interest in vintage signs relates to the important historical insights they provide. “The series of images reveals snippets of history through typography, advertising and way finding, capturing a local vernacular and exposing Australia’s regional idiosyncrasies. A wide range of signage examples are included, from early 19th Century convict-carved signs and faded Victorian ghost signs to 20th Century advertising and signs promoting defunct businesses and outdated technology.”

As Michaels explains, there is a craftsmanship and authenticity about vintage signs that may be missing from today’s generic, digitally generated advertising: “Many of the signs included reveal traditional services and skills that sound strange and unfamiliar in today’s world of imported products and chain stores – from haberdashery to tool-making. This book also celebrates a long tradition of Australian sign-making, from meticulously painted signs to manufactured steel lettering and even the humble hand-written ‘shonky’ sign – and the rich and varied typography that emerges from it all.”

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Michaels acknowledges that vintage signs were never meant to last forever. “That’s the nature of signs – they come, they go. But the ones that remain – because of preservation or simple neglect – tell us a story – or stories – about place and the passing of time.” That said, many pub and motel signs especially are still very much in use.

“The fate of vintage signs is uncertain and often left in the hands of business and building owners who ultimately decide whether to restore, erase or simply ignore the historical marks on their premises. In all too few cases, signs are heritage-listed for permanent protection and are celebrated as important local icons. For those signs that do remain (and there are still many), they offer a window into another time when all signage was produced by skilled artisans and manufacturers. Some signs are a testament to heritage buildings and businesses that have stood the test of time and still operate.”

“Broken Hill, like many towns we passed through, has a mining history of booms and busts that can be read in the signage that remains today.”

As well as being a valuable portal into Australia’s past, vintage signs now have an influence on present day practice in design and illustration. “Traditional sign making skills and typographic styles have even made a comeback in recent years via the handcrafted aesthetic of today’s artisans and creative entrepreneurs, and through digitally replicated ‘vintage’ brand advertising and graphic design.”

Besides the excitement of finding beautiful old signs in far-flung places, Michaels says that the project was a great excuse to hit the road and see “parts of Australia that only existed in our imagination, and many more places we’d never even heard of.”

“We’d never been to Broken Hill before, and we had great hopes that this dusty town would prove itself to be a vintage signs hotspot. We weren’t disappointed.” In fact, the book’s cover image originates on a suburban street in Broken Hill at a classic Australian convenience store.

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Michaels says the “moments of discovery are often met with a gasp, and we certainly did when we found this one. We also found an old ice factory nearby, with its gorgeous rusted sign for Peter’s Ice Cream and elegant mid-century lettering spelling out ‘Broken Hill Ice and Produce Company’. Broken Hill, like many towns we passed through, has a mining history of booms and busts that can be read in the signage that remains today. Just by looking, you can tell when these towns had their glory days by the age and style of their signs.”

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Signs of Australia: Vintage Signs from the City to the Outback by Brady Michaels and Dale Campisi is published by NewSouth Books, $32.99

All photographs by Brady Michaels, IG: @signs.of.australia

2 responses to “The sign hunters: in search of vintage Australian outdoor advertising

  1. got any info on the large hand painted billboards of yesteryear Adelaide, S A. ??? Am remembering the Malbouro Man, etc, etc.

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