Kitsch, Camp, Art or Madness?
13 Jul 2008
Kitsch: from the German ("trash"); objects or artwork so bad, they're good in some ironic way.
Call them kooky, crazy, home-spun or just insane, nostalgic ads, signs, businesses and murals from a kinder, gentler era still exist along the back-roads of America despite the more familiar glut of cookie-cutter businesses and slick, over-grown signage poking up in geometric snarls all along the interstates and even city streets, today.
I have often thought the perfect photo trip would be a long, lazy trip across the USA (avoiding interstates of course), seeking out the wacky and the wild and the whimsical before it disappears forever, buried and forgotten in a tidal wave of Big Boxes, strip malls, car lots and office parks, all disturbingly alike from Florida to California to Seattle. After all, the Golden Arches are the Golden Arches nearly anywhere, Auto Zone is Auto Zone and Starbucks, Starbucks. You can grab a Whopper at a Burger King in Boston, hop aboard a plane for San Francisco, grab another Whopper there and if you don't look out the window, probably convince yourself you haven't traveled anywhere at all. Stop at a mom-and-pop cafe along a country highway in a town so small you'd miss it if you blinked - a building shaped like a say, a shoe, a hat, a hunk of cheese - not only is the food usually better, you are going to know as Dorothy said, "you're not in Kansas, anymore."
In short, I love old Icons from the 40's, 50's and the 60's - kitsch or not, the cornier the better, whether giant daschund heads on hot-dog stands, creaky old motels with flying saucers on the roofs, coffee places shaped like coffee cups, restaurants with badly sculpted cows outside, or just plain, ordinary hand-made signs - another quickly disappearing facet of the landscape where the average business now presents its services and products with a corporate logo ordered by the hundreds from an outfit probably in Jersey or Atlanta (never mind the fact that they'll be shipped to San Diego, Phoenix, maybe Cheyenne, Wyoming in the end). Vintage stuff is just more interesting, more humorous, more individual than that.
Maybe that's the reason much of Route 66 is now a tourist destination and so many people, much too young to recall its heyday have campaigned to refurbish and preserve the unique signs, cafes and motor-inns along that fabled road. They herald from an age more innocent than ours I think, a more creative time when whimsy was the order of the day and non-conformity the rule. Could be, we crave that kind of individuality today, and this is why so many of us take delight in off-beat, campy things wherever we can find they still exist. And it isn't just the signs or buildings, either. It's the whole experience or "what-ness" of the thing; the fact that each such creation is unique and copies won't be popping up in Memphis, Louisville or even down the block.
I did take several treks across the USA, but as Fate would have it with its twisted sense of humor, that was prior to my interest in photography. I haven't ruled it out, but in the meantime I believe I won this little irony because I'm now living in an area where time and so-called Progress haven't made a lot of inroads, yet. Only three hours from my old hometown - or in this case, city as we're talking here about Chicago - but as far from that Megapolis as you can get in spirit and appearance, while remaining in this Galaxy. One stoplight in the county - not a freeway to be seen - no Big Boxes, not for 40 miles - rolling hills blanketed in corn or soy or woodland - rustic barns with white corrals and horses, cows and even llamas - winding 2-lane highways - towns straight from Courier and Ives with cobblestones on Main Street, witch's hats on weathered old Victorians and red-brick downtown stores. And oh yeah, a wealth of kitsch.
These are some examples of the wacky and the wild and the whimsical - treasures from another time although some are old and some are not so old; another mind-set though, still very much in place if not too commonly, today. They are all from far northwestern Illinois and eastern Iowa. One thing is for sure. You won't be seeing things like this around your local mall.