A close-up shot of a sewer opening cover

Type beneath your feet

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In part through the influence of the fantastic Vernacular Typography project, I’ve become obsessed with one particular manifestation of the typescape that surrounds us all. The one most likely to avoid our ever-forward-looking gaze, in fact: the type beneath our feet.

Wherever you go in the urban, and even the rural, world, you trod upon the words of others. And you hardly ever notice it. Granted, these are words of purely utilitarian value—at least, that is their primary intent. But as I’ve discovered these ultimately disregarded and yet wonderfully resilient signs, I’ve noticed a peculiarly poetic element to their time- and elements-scarred contours, to the strange messages they so often convey when divorced from their familiar contexts.

The small sewer cover above, for instance, struck me for its lovely textures and rusted color, which seemed to echo beautifully the decay and squalor you expect to find beneath its thin metal plate. And the fading away of the S pulled the word ewer to my mind—a ewer being a vase-like pitcher used to hold anything a person might drink. Richly ironic contrasts abound!

Was

Street signage … at your feet

Of all the ground-level shots of type I’ve taken lately, this is the only one from San Francisco, the beloved and beautiful city where I work (and sometimes play) across the bay. Here I inverted the type since, being Californian, Spanish is never far from my mind, and the semantic interplay between was and the Spanish mas delights me. The leaf blew in on a fortuitous wind, capturing with its dry gold and lost nature the was, and with its looming shadow the mas. The various pebbles ground into the impressed letters add lovely texture even as they add their own rich wrinkle to the photo’s theme.

Grave site marker

Grave site marker

This is actually the oldest of my ground-level type photos, taken before I even realized my nascent obsession. This one struck me not so much for its poetic elements, but more simply for the oddity (or perhaps wholly appropriate choice) of marking a cemetery on the ground. Other signage at eye level denotes the nature of the space too, but those signs were much more temporary seeming, as if they had been installed much later and in the expectation of a coming move. Poetically speaking, I do enjoy the pun that grave site makes, as a cemetery is a rather serious place indeed. In retrospect I’m also struck by the font choice. Ground-level type seems to have an almost ubiquitously Gothic character (Gothic being a font classification here, not a thematic descriptor), and this piece is no exception, despite the graver serifs we’re used to see adorning our temples of mortality.

So far, the vast majority of my photos have been of cast metal type, but just as bountiful, and generally far more distressed, is the painted type one sees in parking lots and splayed across building walls. Just to vary the theme a bit, here’s a shot of some parking lot signage cropped just right to tell a story it never intended. Reduced to near illegibility, the letters come across through variations in the background, almost as if they were painstakingly worked into the gravel and tar of the blacktop. And in a sense they were, not by human hands, but by time and rain and wind—eroded to send alternate messages, just as my human eye has done.

Parking spot signage

Parking spot signage

Much like the type captured in the Vernacular Typography project, the words beneath our feet are glimpsed in the midst of a state of flux, as subject to human whim and need as to the vagaries of the weather. And that lends these messages a peculiar fragility and power that I’m happy to capture.

I very much look forward to continuing in my fascination. No matter how many odd looks I get as I kneel down on city concrete or in the midst of an intersection to snap a pic. So look forward to more photos of the type beneath our feet, and let me know if you’ve snapped any similar pics!