Handmade signage, storefront windows, and the informal design of local mom-and-pop emporiums have been elevated to the aesthetic for decades now.

Robert Frank’s landmark photo series The Americans (1958) was as much about vernacular architecture as it was the people who owned and frequented it in the postwar years. Simply put: signs tell stories.

Far less known, but equally compelling, is Seymour Rosen’s 1979 book and exhibition, In Celebration of Ourselvesa photojournalistic essay on self-taught California artists (many of them unknown), whose storefront murals, custom car detail work, and self-made folk environments (think Watts Towers) captured the West Coast spirit of reinvention with an eye to sociology and a heart for the aesthete who never saw himself as one.

Likewise, New York City boasts two new photo/documentary efforts, each capturing the hidden creative impulse in the ordinary and everyday. One is titled Analogue and was executed by American photographer/sculptor Zoe Leonard from 1998-2009. It is currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art.

Leonard’s interest in the way cheap products are arranged and displayed in poorer neighborhood shops is disquieting and perhaps even a little nostalgic. Then again, who in NYC these days isn’t struck by the desire for life prior to gentrification?

Architect Kirsten Hively may not have had income disparity in mind when she conceived Project Neon in 2010, but her effort is no less socially realist in its conclusion.

Essentially, Hively goes to older storefronts in the five boroughs that still have hand-made neon signs and photographs them lit up at night. She accompanies each photo with a small essay on her Tumblr site. Project Neon has been covered by many of the publications of record, including the NY Times, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, and Time Out. Hively sold Project Neon calendars in 2014, though the series seems to’ve slowed down lately. (Her last post was seven months ago.)

The earliest photographs bear the excitement of the new and a focus on the rule rather than the exception. As time goes on, however, Hively’s photos become more abstract, as evidenced by a post titled Queens Wine & Liquor, with its blinking yellow arrow to the left and swirling yellows and reds against a black backdrop to the right.

Some of the photographs are cropped so as to capture a short phrase or single word, revealing once more the seductive universality of consumerism. We expect it of advertising, but neon, because it’s romantically linked to the past, is more easily blurred of its original intent to attract and sell.

At one point, practically everything was forged in thin neon tubing: from silhouettes of cats and dogs, to medical symbols, to steaming coffee cups and meranged slices of pie. (Still waiting on a neon Mona Lisa.) These days, most shops use cheap backlit plastic signs. Times Square is a barrage of moving images on high-tech LED screens. Neon continues, though at a much smaller level: shoe repair shops, Chinese restaurants, the fading flickers of the city’s last diners. Hively captures both old and new in a style not unlike the thousands of midcentury mavens across the US that have taken to Tumblr with similar projects in mind. What she lacks in aesthetic prowess she makes up for in sheer devotion to the cause.

Five years in, Hively has no doubt witnessed a number of closures. She photographed the DeRobertis Pastry Shoppe on the Lower Eastside in December 2014, just days before it closed up after 110 years in operation. Smith’s Bar on 8th Avenue, near Times Square, was captured prior to closure, as well. Hively even started an Indiegogo fundraiser in fall ’14 to save the threatened Subway Inn Bar on the Upper Eastside.

Her picture of the Subway’s signage captures glowing fonts and shapes in a low light, where they jump disembodied from the inn’s actual architecture. The effect reminds of a ’50s postcard of midtown jazz cafes, where signs overlap and zig-zag to capture an exuberant time in NYC history through a dizzying optical effect. If there is less neon in Hively’s composition, it is because there is less neon overall now. Its ephemerality is a reminder that eventually all lights will go out. (Brian Chidester)

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