Interview: Thom Bennett

by | Jul 31, 2017

Signposts in a Strange Land” is a photographic exploration of empty vernacular signage along the backroads of the South by photographer Thom Bennett. Walker Percy recognized the South as a strange, exotic place, unlike anywhere else in America; a place that clings to the past and stubbornly refuses to accept the present. His book of essays, published posthumously, entitled Signposts in a Strange Land, is a jumping off point for this series, which explores the themes of the past, alienation, language (or, rather, the lack thereof), and loss.

I’m amazed that the words and signage will disappear but the structure of the sign is not taken down. Why do people leave up an empty sign? ~ Thom Bennett

Can you give us 10 words to describe your “empty signs” series?

South, Malaise, Empty, Bleak, Worn, Sculptural, Loss, History, Alienation, Languageless.

Go on…

Louisiana (and the South in general) is such a unique and strange place and, in both urban and rural areas, there is always a sense of things being on their last legs but somehow holding on. Tumbledown is a word that comes to mind. These signs, like the past, once held meaning and were guideposts to things of particular importance. Now just the basic structures remain and we are left to our own imaginations to wonder what they pointed to. Same with our region. Structural institutions that once defined the South no longer exist. I think in some ways we’re still trying to fill in the blanks and create a new South.

Walker Evans famously wrote that color photography was “vulgar.” He seemed to soften on that view a bit when he started working with SX-70 cameras and film in the early seventies, stating, “…nobody should touch a Polaroid until he’s over sixty.” You are well short of sixty, shooting signs with monochromatic instant film and an admirer of Evans’ work, does that aphorism ring true in any way for you?

Well, not too far from sixty! I started using the SX-70 again when The Impossible Project began making film after Polaroid’s demise. I’ve had an SX-70 since college and would pick it up every now and again not thinking that one day Polaroid would no longer exist. Anyway, I started with TIP’s color film and liked the palette for the signage that I was photographing but, for this series, I wanted to look mainly at the graphic structures of the empty signs so color was not that important. In most of my other work I shoot B&W so that worked for me as well. I was heavily influenced by Evan’s use of the SX-70 and I mentioned to John Lawrence {Director of Museum Programs at HNOC} during a review that I felt like I was cribbing from the greats by photographing signage and he said, “Well, photographing signs is a grand tradition within photography.” That helped loosen me up and before I knew it I was taking photographing signs in my own direction.

Your signs no longer function as signs in terms of advertising or utility. Semiotically speaking, though, the conversation never ends. Since the signs no longer “communicate” directly with us, thus losing its most basic meaning (and identity), do they still symbolize anything for you?

 

Yes, I think by their sheer presence in the landscape they remind us that something was once here that was important and required a visual reference to guide the viewer (consumer). I’m amazed that the words and signage will disappear but the structure of the sign is not taken down. Why do people leave up an empty sign? Do they have the hope that one day the sign will again be utilized? Or is it just too much work to bother with taking it down? I guess it can be see both ways.

 

And because these signs are no longer communicating in their original graphic design sense, have they already become a kind of public art/sculpture even before you shoot them?

 

Exactly. What I try to do is frame them within their current context to make as graphic a representation as I can. I’m very concerned with composition and how I frame these within the landscape they sit in. I’ll try to walk around each sign so I can to see where it fits best with the background and surrounding landscape.

It’s (somewhat painfully) obvious that time has passed since these signs were new. What about this aspect of time in your images? Is that important for you?  

Yes, but most of these signs are, to my mind, not really that old. Maybe 20 to 30 years old? Not that old in the scheme of things. But they’ve been allowed to go to seed. I think it is tied up in how our economy has changed over the last 30 years. Lots of these signs were probably for small businesses that were important to the local community. Now we have big box stores and online shopping. No one needs the local shops anymore. These empty signs are indicative of that.

 

The film you use is a reinterpretation of classic polaroid SX-70 film. In many ways it’s extremely fugitive in nature and in all likelihood will fade with time. Are you cool with that?

I worry a bit about that. It’s difficult to get a hard and fast answer to the question of how long these prints will last. I trust that as they age and change that will serve the subject matter as well. All things fall apart and the only constant is change. A hard pill to swallow at times but one we have to embrace.

How does shooting with Impossible instant film affect your editing process?

Since it takes at least 20 minutes to really see what the final picture will look like, I try to nail the exposure and composition in a couple of shots of the same subject. So, I try to edit in camera. There are some anomalies of the film that I don’t like and will immediately edit those photos out. I shoot a lot of these signs so, if one doesn’t work, I’ll either try to go back to it or forget about it and move on. There’s always another one around the corner.  

Do you care about which camera to use?

Kind of. I really like the functionality of the SX-70 as well as the size. I have a Sonar version plus a couple of 680’s that shoot the higher speed film but I’m probably drawn to the SX-70 as, to me, it is the most elegant and nostalgic. And it was a groundbreaking camera when it came out in the ‘70’s. I’m very nostalgic about it.

Tell us about the work you have in Louisiana Contemporary at the Ogden Musesm of Southern Art  in August. 

I was lucky to be included in the exhibit! I have six images included and I’m looking forward to seeing how they will be hung. All of these signs have arrows in them so the are tied together visually.

 Any other upcoming projects?

I seem to be winding down this particular project and, for an upcoming show during PhotoNOLA, I am going to collage all the empty signs I have into four larger pieces and include some text by Percy overlaying them. Looking for different ways to express to the viewer how they all work together. Originally, I thought each would stand on its on but I think seeing them playing off each other may help strengthen the overall effect.

Thom Bennett is a New Orleans-based commercial photographer; his day job is as staff photographer at M.S. Rau Antiques. He has been using the same SX-70 since buying it new in 1979 and still wishes he had used it more than he did.

See more of his work at thombennettphotographs.com/

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