It’s twilight on a dank Monday in Leeds. At a desolate junction in an insalubrious part of town, Peter Kindersley is setting up his tripod. He works quickly, scoping out angles, switching lenses, conscious of the coal-black cloud parked over the parade of shops to his right. To his left, a group of men suck on cigarettes outside a pub. One approaches and explains that this corner used to be bustling with life, with businesses, with a community. Now, up ahead, the only sign of those times clings to the gable-end of a terrace—a faded advert for a long-forgotten brand, Bile Beans.
In this photo essay, Kindersley pays homage to the brick-borne advertising of a bygone age. Hand-painted adverts, now known as ghost signs, used to be found on walls all over Britain, Europe and America. But since the mass production of printed posters and billboards in the 1950s sent them into decline, and development, demolition and weathering have conspired to see to it that few survive. For these photographs, Kindersley put in some mileage to capture some of the ghost signs before they got pulled down or faded to nothing.
Kindersley, who is 35, lives in London, works as a freelance and divides his time between editorial and commercial work. He is a creature of the night. He marauds around cities under the cover of darkness, pinpointing their emptiness and eeriness. In 2009 we ran a photo essay of his, “London for Loners”, and since then he has shot similar cityscapes in Hong Kong, mainland China and Japan. He likes the juxtaposition between old and new, and often his photos will start on a street or in an alley and stretch up to a glistening skyscraper on the skyline. He seldom features people, still less cars. “I’m attracted to dereliction and empty space,” he says, “as well as buildings and light.”
To do the ghost signs justice, Kindersley wanted to put them in context and include the surrounding architecture. “I wanted the whole effect to be monumental, ghostly,” he says, “like old tombstones, bearing witness to modern urbanisation.” His signature technique, using a slow shutter speed to flood the exposure with what little light there is, adds eerie effects. It was a blowy night when he shot “Horses bought and sold” and so the trees in the background have come out woozy and hazy. Similarly, in Bradford, puffs of slow-moving cloud were dragged across the night sky by the long exposure. Sometimes it is so dark, it is hard to find something to focus on. But Kindersley is well practised and the result is a set of pictures heavy with atmosphere and, paradoxically, warm with golden light.
In their day, signs were painted up high, on prominent façades or ends of terraces. They could be found in urban, industrial areas, and sometimes in smaller towns and villages. Some doubled up as signage, but most were there solely to peddle wares to passers-by. They were popular among brewers and tobacco brands, as well as big companies selling plainer items like bread, custard or matches. Specialist signwriters painted the ads directly onto the wall. The more intricate a design, the more it would cost. Sadly, with the demise of the signs, has gone the art of creating them.
The world moved on, and the slow march of modern life means that many of the signs are ghosts of businesses past. “As I was photographing them, I kept wondering what that company had been like,” Kindersley says. The ads offer some insight. Some products are simply not relevant any more: horses have been superseded by cars; coal by gas and electricity. Poor old Bile Beans wouldn’t last two minutes in today’s brand-obsessed marketplace. Cigarette manufacturers are no longer allowed to advertise in Britain, and heavy restrictions apply to the promotion of alcohol. But a few of the names, like Hovis, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Bovril, are still with us, even if the slogans have long since changed.
These days there is growing affection for the ghost signs. Since 2010 the History of Advertising Trust has been photographing and documenting those in Britain for its online archive. So far it has more than 900 entries. Amateur photographers upload their own snaps to Instagram, Tumblr and Flickr. For the signs that remain, the writing is not quite on the wall. ~ GEORGIA GRIMOND