All About The Vintage Beer Sign Project

Hi. I've uploaded some new video content to my YouTube channel. This time the video is a talk about how I've been working on and photographing for my Vintage Beer Signs Of The Midwest project. Grab a PBR, sit back, and enjoy.

Video Transcription

Hey tube! How's it going? Don't answer that cuz I can't hear you. Last weekend I went out a little, little road trip with my camera and put about five hundred twenty miles on my car and took a bunch of pictures for a project I've been working on. I also did a little behind the scenes footage of this project that I want to cut into some future videos for YouTube, but before I do that I think it would be fun actually just do a little video about the project so when they appear you have some idea what it's all about.

So project spoiler alert: it's about places across the Midwest mostly in Wisconsin that still have a certain type of old Pabst Blue Ribbon, Old Style, Blatz, etc. beer signs flying outside of them.

The Project

A little background of how this project came to be. Around October 2017 I felt that I needed to try something different with photography to keep things exciting.

I'd been shooting a lot of 8x10 at the time and just kind of haphazardly been wandering throughout the Great Lakes region looking for stuff to shoot.

I wanted to try a different format, and I realized I'd never used panoramic format outside of the really terrible panoramic that my mom's APS camera did back in the 90s. You know that Kodak thing where it's like smaller than 35mm. Then they faked panoramic by this cropping off the top and bottom, so your pictures look even more disgusting when you got them back?

Yeah! That! I used that, didn't like it. The pictures sucked.

So what I did, I went out I bought myself a legit film camera high-resolution panoramic. The DaYi 617. Straight from China. This camera has a big old strip film about yay big in there, and it makes a nice fat panoramic image.

Having this camera on order, I was thinking about "What am I gonna shoot with this camera?" when it arrives.

For a long time, I've been having this idea of like I want to do something throughout Wisconsin get deep into the rural part of it and make some good imagery. So I was like maybe I could like just do Main Streets of towns under the population of 700?

But, the more that I thought about that it just seemed kind of not that exciting of a subject.

I thought about it some more, and I was thinking about my upbringing because I grew up in population 600 Wisconsin. Another feature of my upbringing is that I lived in a bar my entire life. Not in the bar proper. We had an apartment on top of the bar. But the fun thing was there was no direct exit from the apartment. So to get out of our house good to go through a bar.

Many, many bars back at that time had the old Pabst provided giant light-up PBR sign or Old Style sign depending on which brand got their claws on that bar. And our bar had that, and I realized that like kind of my whole childhood every place we went to was mostly bar to bar for social events, and they all had that sign. To the point that at some point I jokingly started calling it the Wisconsin State flag to have one of those outside of your business.

So I'm thinking about what can I shoot in Wisconsin? I came to the conclusion that I wanted to try normal street scenes, but they all in some way should incorporate that ubiquitous sign that exists throughout the state.

While I was waiting for the camera to arrive, I got the work on Google Maps looking for places to photograph. I started searching for taverns. Flipping into Street View, and if they had one of these signs make a map, make a map. Kept doing that over and over and over and over and over and eventually, I had this giant map with over 400 marks on it that I've still not completed because I haven't really canvassed the southern part of the Wisconsin real well or in the Chicago Illinois area, which I know also has a lot of these signs.

So this project has a very large scope at this moment. I could potentially be shooting this for a long time if I wanted to.

The Map

About making this map. I said most of it is just found by me searching the word tavern, pub, bar, bowling alley and looking at the results. Seeing what has them and then browsing than any other little small town I can find it just using Street View to drive down the Main Street and see what exists there. And I'd say that's probably where 90% of the pins come from. But a lot of these places also exist way outside of any spot that's ever been mapped by Google. So in those cases, I'll have to go to search for their Facebook page, or their Google business profile and then see if somebody at some point had taken a picture of the front of the place that could show up as a sign.

Or in some cases even looking at like just the random pictures people have taken near it of like events and parties there, and just searching in the corners trying to see if I can see the sign hanging out in the background. And, through the process of having the browse a lot of these bars by their customer uploaded imagery, I've kind of reached this conclusion in my head that I think some of the best street photography going on right now is actually on these bars social media pages. Because a lot of them are not taken by anyone who probably thinks they are street photographers. It's just people they're having a good time we have a smartphone shooting their friends but a lot of these pictures just kind of really make me wish I had taken them with like good equipment and high-res and just putting that fine art stamp on it.

So I'd recommend if you got some time to kill just go to Google Maps go to Wisconsin. Search "tavern." Just start browsing their, the pictures. There's a lot of really interesting stuff that's within these albums.

And aside from the picture I've found by browsing Street View, a lot of these are also recorded by a visual identification either by myself driving around or my friends who drive around.

Because it's not uncommon for a lot of places that used to be taverns 20-30 years ago to not be taverns anymore, but they'll still have the sign on it for some reason. Occasionally find like a house that's a converted tavern that still has big old PBR sign floating on it.

So one of the problems I have been having with the Google map view is that a lot of Wisconsin doesn't seem to have been photographed with the Google Street View car since about 2008, 2007. And with a lot of business turnover in the meantime, these signs have disappeared and since then.

For example, the very first, the very first time I went out to shoot this I got the camera I was all excited going to make my first roll film. I picked a little cluster of signs that were only like a 20-minute drive away and like "Yes! I can go shoot all these signs!" I go drive there. I roll in and the whole block is knocked down! There is nothing left! Just dirt. The entire block that had like six signs on it just dead.

I'm like "what the...hmm" So okay. There's also one on the other side of the road. I'll just turn around and shoot that sign.

I turn around and it's gone too! So I'm like "Okay this is my life now." I'm gonna be driving to the middle of nowhere and rolling up to my photo spot it to be gone.

It's kind of a legit concern because outside of a few journeys where I had visually identified that the sign exists and then went back later with my camera, every trip I've taken has at least one sign from Google Maps being dead. So it almost kind of gives me a feeling of like I'm doing a documentary project, but might not be around forever.

But at the same time, there's over 400 of these I've identified so far. So they're probably not gonna all go away in my lifetime. But eventually, if they do it's gonna be a nice little tribute photo series.

Other Peoples' Projects

One would possibly think that like "How has it not been done before? Who hasn't gone out and shot these signs before?" Well, it has been done before. But in different contexts that I've discovered.

One of which is someone around Chicago did one called the Old Style Bar Project where they identified all the bars around Chicago that had an Old Style sign in front and then went into each one, had some drinks. Discussed the place with the owner. Made a little blog post about it. Took some interior photos. It's a neat project, but it seems to have gone dark around the end of 2013.

But the website still does have their map that they made of Old Style signs across Chicago, Milwaukee and into Wisconsin that I've cross-referenced with my own to fill out some gaps that I didn't discover on my own.

The other project I found was a user on Flickr who goes by the username "Great Laker" Who back around 2011 he or she documented a lot of these signs along the eastern coast of Wisconsin between Milwaukee and Green Bay and up into Door County. Their map has been useful for helping me fill in some more gaps of signs I haven't found on my own. And it already seems since 2011 quite a few that they've documented have already disappeared from more recent Google map drive-bys.

The Photographs

So, The last thing I want to go over is the stylistic choice of how I'm choosing to photograph these signs. When I tell people that I'm working on a project where I'm taking pictures of the old bar signs in front of bars in Wisconsin, I imagine what they imagine is how the Great Laker images look. Where it's just a close, zoomed in photo of the sign. Not much context outside of it. It's all about the sign and nothing but the sign. But that's not the way I usually work in my photography. I like to take a subject get a wide lens. Back off a little bit and then present it amongst its environment to get a whole picture of where this thing exists at that moment, and not just be about that thing.

So this wider view that I usually take has been a pretty conscious decision in my career of shooting photographs. Sometimes when I take these pictures and throw them into the fine art rings, people like the critiquers get like confused that "Why isn't the subject taking up more of the frame? Are you too timid to get close to it?"

But, I mean it's a conscious choice I'm making the shoot wider in most situations.

I get this like feeling that "good photographers" have this expectation that you have get big zoomy lenses that can really get you into the subject. Or just you know punch in there and fill everything up. Just only focus on that one thing in a way that grandma can't with their little snapshot camera.

But Dammit! I like my snapshots! And the panoramic here, the wide-angle does a mother good snapshot. That takes a lot of setting up, and focusing, and metering, and all that jazz.

The Hill House Pub & Grill, Boyd, Wisconsin, December 2017

The sign is often very, very small in the resulting image. I might be able to philosophize that although I market the project of being about these signs, is actually about the towns, the roads, the rural areas where these signs exist. And they're just there to give it some unity.

I hope people understand that even though I say it's about the signs, it's about the signs. It's about Midwest and Wisconsin, urban and rural landscape in general. It's just that the signs are so everywhere that you can't escape them really.

So I think that just about covers what I want to cover about this project. About how I've identified locations and make my images.

So if you have any questions please feel free to ask them in the comments and if you're not subscribed to my channel please do that so you can get notified when the behind-the-scenes videos drop. Along with any other crazy yellings I decided to upload. Also hit the description. I'll have links to all the projects I've mentioned throughout this. A link to the map I'm building with all the sign locations. Alright see you later!