Ghost Sign Stories: Photographer Frank Jump Is Haunted By New York’s ‘Fading Ads’

The Omega Oil sign, on Frederick Douglas and 145th, that started it all. (Courtesy Frank Jump)

For more than 20 years photographer Frank Jump has been documenting New York’s fading ads. Slowly vanishing signs of yesteryear, the building ads are ephemera that has stubbornly persisted in our constantly changing urban landscape, in defiance of development, decay and all the other challenges conspiring against them. The most common term for such remnants is ghost signs, but Mr. Jump prefers fading ads. “I never felt comfortable with the word ghost,” he says. “I don’t really believe in ghosts.”

While some may see such remnants of the past as manifestations of loss, Mr. Jump sees them metaphors for survival. “Like myself, many of these ads have long outlived their expected lifespan,” he explained in a recent interview. In 1986, at the age of 26, Mr. Jump was diagnosed with HIV and told that he had a few good years left. Despite the discouraging prognosis, a decade later he was finishing his long-postponed college degree when he saw a massive, faded sign for Omega Oil at 145th Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard.

Mr. Jump describes the Omega Oil sign as a moment of discovery that awakened “a love of the urban mystery.” And an obsession with documenting the signs that had, either through chance or accident, outlived the products that they were painted on the sides of buildings to sell. Since 1999, Mr. Jump has been sharing his signature photographs, as well stories of the products they sold and the buildings that they graced, on his Fading Ads blog. Earlier this year he published Fading Ads of New York City, his first book on the subject, although he is adamant that it will not be his last.

Mr. Jump standing in front of Eaglo Paint Sign in Brooklyn

And while Mr. Jump admits that his project does stimulate the nostalgic impulse and a longing for the past (whether it is the ideal past of the sign’s heyday, or our own dimly remembered histories that such signs seem to conjure up), he’s not looking to turn back time, or stand in the way of progress. He’d like for the signs to be left alone, neither restored to their former brilliance nor demolished, but left “to fade to imperceptability.”

At the beginning of October, The Observer attended a Landmarks West lecture that Mr. Jump gave at the Society for Ethical Culture on the Upper West Side. The next afternoon, we talked the next afternoon about the Fading Ads project, nostalgia, change and the disappointments of digital archiving. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.

The Observer: You talked about seeing the Omega Oil sign and how that sign, the hidden world it opened up to you, and this project changed the course of your life. What about fading ads caught your interest and kept it?

Frank Jump: The moment I started seeing fading ads, I saw myself in these signs. I lost countless friends to AIDS between 1979 and 1990. You wake up and 15 of your friends have died. The signs personified the phenomenon. They would disappear, but there’s also a survival metaphor. Sometimes I’d walk a street that I’ve walked so many times before and all of sudden I’ll see a sign I never noticed before. Now I’m so tuned into them.

The Observer: It’s funny you mention that. Right after the lecture, we were walking and waiting for a the light to change we suddenly noticed a fading ad—a block from where we live—that we’d never seen before. Do people often tell you that after looking at your photos they start to notice fading ads all of a sudden?

Frank Jump: They do; it’s one of those few specific phenomenon that once it catches your attention you start to notice it everywhere. It’s like when you learn a new word and all of sudden you start hearing it all the time. You’re reinterpreting your landscape, and the things that have always seemed so familiar all around you. It’s almost subliminal.

An advertisement for Griffin Shears, circa 1930, on Seventh Avenue. (Courtesy Frank Jump)

The Observer: When did sign painting disappear as a form of advertising?

Frank Jump: It hasn’t really. I think that writing on walls is one of those things that has always communicated well to humans. If you go back to the cave paintings in Lascaux, those were types of advertisements, where that person hunted, what they killed… I think it’s an art form that will always be around.

The Observer: But it isn’t as common as it once was.

Frank Jump: There are some painters now, Colossal Media, they do wonderful works of art. Of course, it’s all done the new way, in these vibrant colors, but the paint is all plastic, so the paintings don’t fade, they just chip. Old signs were fairly toxic, the paint was lead, but they lasted. And the other thing is, once brick and concrete walls are no longer around, glass towers don’t really lend themselves to paintings. I think the future will be big holographic 3-D images, projections that don’t take up any space and disappear when you turn them off.

The Observer: Like Bladerunner?

Frank Jump: [Laughs.] Yeah.

The Observer: What will the next fading ads be? What remnants of modern day advertising or other cultural detritus do you think people will be discovering 100 years from now?

Frank Jump: Guerrilla street art, posters, stickers. What makes New York such an interesting place is that it’s filled with artists. I think what will last—besides architecture—is graffiti, urban ediglyphs [a term Mr. Jump invented to describe the interaction between advertising and street art; a combination of the words edifice and petroglyph.] It’s always fun to see how people alter advertising.

Ghost Sign Stories: Photographer Frank Jump Is Haunted By New York’s ‘Fading Ads’