Palimpsests: Ghost Signs of Pittsburgh

Friday, March 14, 2014 to Saturday, May 17, 2014

palimpsest  [pal’× imp × sest´]

          n.   something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form

It’s called the Steel City, but Pittsburgh is really a city made of brick.  Masonry is the most prominent human-made surface in the neighborhoods, the commercial areas, and downtown.  By the start of the last century, some brick walls were being utilized as  canvases for advertisement.  These spaces held multiple ads and business signs, one often painted over the last.  Freestanding billboards have largely replaced this form of communication.  Meanwhile, the seasons have weathered the signs unevenly, with some pigments lasting, some disappearing to reveal the earlier sign—or the original brick—that lay beneath it.

Palimpsests is an exercise in 20th century archaeology, the texture, text and imagery being artifacts of Pittsburgh’s economic and cultural history. 

Kelly Bogel

Artist Statement:

My photographs juxtapose decay with growth by exposing urban landscapes subtly reclaimed by the natural environment. My intent is to evoke a sense of nostalgia or yearning by chronicling subjects that are fractured iterations of what they once were.

I truly noticed the ephemeral existence of ghost signs in November when I revisited Dad’s on the North Side for a reshoot: the entire building had been demolished since the original shoot in April.

I shot Palimpsests on 4x5 Kodak Ektar film with a monorail view camera to minimize distortion and retain detail. Each location required roughly ten minutes of preparation to arrange the camera, focus, and shoot. Film processing and subsequent printing revealed subtleties in each sign that were not previously apparent on location. I used large format film because it captures exceptional detail, allowing for these discoveries. The prints in this exhibition are documents of true palimpsests, windows into our history.

Kelly Bogel, Photographer and Will Zavala, project Director 


Priya Shah, David Stokes, Sue Abramson, Aytac Akkan Karaguzel, Matt Bogel, Licia Slimon, Bobby Abramson, Digital Research Library at the University of Pittsburgh, Adam Welch, Rachael Cooper, Jasdeep Khaira, and other staff at Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the Owners and Neighbors of the buildings on which these signs are found.

This project supported in part by a Seed Award from The Sprout Fundand by an Artist Opportunity Grant from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.