4 Jan 2022

New York State Ghost Signs from Margherita Fabrizio

Fading painted 'manicule' (pointing finger). Among the New York State Ghost Signs from Margherita Fabrizio.
Finger by Margherita Fabrizio.

Margherita Fabrizio has been photographing New York State ghost signs since the mid-1990s. Here she shares some of her images, and the story of how they came into being.

Margherita was the daughter of professional photographer Joseph Francis Fabrizio. When she was eight he handed her a camera and “began to share his acute visual awareness of the world with me”. Their photographic expeditions came to an end in 1994 when Joseph died. However, this led to a new impetus on Margherita’s part.

“I began photographing the many painted walls which were an integral part of the central New York State cityscape of my childhood. I suppose they represented something gone but that I could capture and hold onto — a way to make the past be more consciously part of the present… The colors and textures of the ghostly images and their connection with the past resonated with me and the game of searching for them in new cities and familiar ones was just fun.”

Margherita Fabrizio

I can certainly attest to the last point, and this pursuit lasted about ten years for Margherita. It also facilitated her transition to colour photography, where before she had only worked in black and white for ‘serious’ image making. For these ghost signs, “It was impossible not to shoot them in color. They were too beautiful to do otherwise”. In addition she rarely photographed the entire building/sign, “because I was coming at them from more of a purely aesthetic perspective”.

On her travels photographing ghost signs in New York State, she often came across fragments for Gold Medal Flour. However, their incompleteness presented something of a riddle in trying to figure out the slogan. She describes the “thrill” of seeing it in its entirety for the first time, with ‘Eventually, Why not now?‘ used by the company from 1907 and into the 1950s.

Part of that slogan helped to name one of Margherita’s composite images which she produced for an exhibition held at Cornell University in 2007. All of her work was shot on film, and so for the exhibition she scanned these and printed them digitally at scale. Eventually Home measures 44″ (1.2m) square, while the landscape composites are up to 60″ (1.5m) wide. (See also Dave Cowan’s work and other artistic interpretations of ghost signs.)

The exhibition was a tangible output from Margherita’s work, but she describes an initial mission similar to what I’ve envisioned in terms of a (global) archive/map

When I began this project, I dreamed of creating a national repository, to be filled by people all across the country, photographers and non-photographers — people who wanted the challenge of seeing something extraordinary in something so familiar and previously invisible to them, but the technology to easily accomplish this wasn’t then in place. Now that so many carry a camera at all times, it might be worth re-visiting. Perhaps the challenge could be finding what hasn’t yet been preserved in the 8000-image database of Ken Jones. (Thanks, Sam, for pointing me toward this monumental body of work!)

Margherita Fabrizio

Thank you Margherita for sharing your photos and story. There are more photos in her new Flickr (see also her landscape work) and anyone is interested in discussing the idea of a repository as described then please get in touch.

Composite of photos of fading painted sign from the collection of New York State Ghost Signs from Margherita Fabrizio.
Eventually Home by Margherita Fabrizio. From Top Left to Right they are: Montreal; Bath NY; Syracuse NY; Binghamton NY; Western New York State; Montreal; Syracuse NY; Bath NY; Bath NY. Syracuse NY, Syracuse NY, Montreal.
Fading painted sign for the Central City Provision Co. Among the New York State Ghost Signs from Margherita Fabrizio.
It’s No Bull by Margherita Fabrizio, a detail of which features in the Eventually Home composite.
Composite of three fading painted signs from the New York State Ghost Signs photographed by Margherita Fabrizio.
New York State Facades by Margherita Fabrizio.
Composite image of four fading painted signs. drawn from the New York State Ghost Signs photographed by Margherita Fabrizio.
Wyoming and Allegany County, New York, by Margherita Fabrizio.
Composite image of fading painted signs with directional elements. drawn from the New York State Ghost Signs photographed by Margherita Fabrizio.
Follow the Signs by Margherita Fabrizio.
Fading painted sign for a book bindery. drawn from the New York State Ghost Signs photographed by Margherita Fabrizio.
Book Bindery by Margherita Fabrizio.
Fading painted sign for Warner's Macaroni. drawn from the New York State Ghost Signs photographed by Margherita Fabrizio.
Warner’s Macaroni by Margherita Fabrizio.
Fading painted sign for Waldorf Lunches. drawn from the New York State Ghost Signs photographed by Margherita Fabrizio.
Waldorf Lunches by Margherita Fabrizio.
Fading painted sign for Uneeda Biscuit. drawn from the New York State Ghost Signs photographed by Margherita Fabrizio.
Uneeda Biscuit by Margherita Fabrizio.