Andy Burgess – Signs of Nothing

Review by Wayne Swanson

There’s nothing to see here. Yet photographer, artist, and photobook publisher Andy Burgess presents a captivating collection of images that remind us of what once was.

Signs of Nothing delivers just what the title says — images of empty signs that once beckoned us to stores, motels, gas stations, restaurants, and other roadside attractions. The words and graphics are long gone. All that remains are the frames. Burgess’s stark black and white images present them as modernist sculptures that are compelling on their own, but that invite the viewer’s interpretations of the messages they once held.

Where did that arrow-shaped sign point you? What awaited you beyond that giant cowboy boot with spurs? How about that cow above a blank rectangle? These are not the trademarked shapes of today’s franchised America. Rather, they are the remnants of Mom & Pop America from the days when the open road beckoned us to see the USA in our Chevrolets. 

The post-World War II boom yielded the rise of road-trip vacations and the culture of consumption. Roadside signage played an important role in enticing travelers and consumers to pick me, me, me! Then the rise of the Interstate highways and franchise consumerism led to the decline of many off-the-beaten path and independent businesses, as well as their signage. All that’s left are the forlorn frames. Through Burgess’s lens, though, they retain a certain allure, part nostalgia and part minimalist design appeal.

As a photographer, Burgess finds beauty in the mundane and explores the tension between presence and absences. As a painter, he is drawn to scenes of Modernist architecture. All of these influences are in play here. The signs couldn’t be more mundane, or absent in content, and they have a kinship with the minimalist forms of mid-century modern architecture. His crisp black and white images, simple and striking, are stripped of color as well as content, as if mourning the lost dreams of the signs’ heyday. In many, the sky is rendered black, helping the signs stand out as sculptural objects.

The book itself is typical of the simple aesthetic of Burgess’s own Dark Spring Press, although this book is actually published by Nazraeli Press. It’s modest in size, just 5.25 x 6.5 inches, with 58 images between cardstock covers. Despite the dimensions, the simple compositions stand out, and the careful sequencing allows shapes to play off against one another in interesting ways.

Today, the romance of the road is not what it used to be, and many communities are at war with sign pollution. Burgess’s empty signs are poignant reminders of the 20thcentury version of the American dream.

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Signs of Nothing, Andy Burgess

Photographer: Andy Burgess, born in London, England, resides in Tucson, Arizona

Publisher: Nazraeli Press & available from Andy Burgess, Copyright 2020

Essay: Dr. Alex Gordon

Text: English

Stiff cover with tipped-in cover photograph, perfect-bound with 5-inch flaps, 5.25 x 6.5 inches, printed in the Netherlands

Book design: Andy Burgess, Dawne Osborne

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Articles and photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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