Photo Essay

Neon Magic

As a photographer, one can not argue with the primal draw of fire, the constant seeking of the light. Thanks to inventors, we can grab it and recreate it in many forms, fire, incandescent, fluorescent, tungsten, neon, halogen, and on and on. Of all these representations of fire there is one that calls to our primal nature best, and to me that is Neon.

Although discovered by the French some have called it "The Light of the American Dream". Documents and exhibits take the idea for the medium back to late sixteen hundreds. Even more drafts appeared in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. These early forms of gas filled molds had very short life spans making further development a necessity. Soon gases like krypton, neon, argon, and xenon were being used with brilliant results. But costs were still too high for widespread use or growth. Finally, in the early nineteen hundreds an electrode was introduced with a high resistance to corrosion. This opened the door and neon flooded into use worldwide.

One of the first neon signs to hit the west came around 1924 to a car dealership in Los Angeles, CA. The car was the Packard and the sign outlived the car's production. Neon soon traveled to Times Square, responsible for much of the exciting draw of New York in the nineteen thirties. Many movie theaters followed suit and neon became a important part of drawing crowds for prestigious premieres. Even companies like Goodyear placed neon signs on their blimps called neon-o-grams. Paper punch tape activated in the cabin by the captain could stream all kinds of messages across the side of the ship creating a dramatic display. However, the boom could not last forever.

Soon the shift to Plexiglas and plastic shadow boxes provided more economical choices for sign makers. These signs could be put together more cheaply, quicker and by less skilled workers. Neon took a backseat and was demoted to supporting roles inside formed letters. Existing signs begin to deteriorate and were replaced by these new designs. The market begins to change and plastic forms began to dominate the industry. Neon production dropped dramatically infuriating people in the field. More and more neon advertised abandoned businesses remained in the landscape further eroding the neon name. Soon Neon might only be associated with a seedy motel or red light district. By 1940 much of the work involving neon was dominated by maintenance of existing signage.

Yet, in the past twenty years neon has broken out of the mold. Designers and artists are beginning to see use much broader than the letters A to Z, or numbers 1 to 100. Maybe the medium is beginning to get the respect it deserves. Many artists are installing it as standalone art inside and out. Some say Neon could be used as an element to help rebuild the nation's desolate city centers. Neon can be an attraction in itself making simply walking through town an exciting experience. Remember when signs included animated objects moving from one side to another in neon? Certainly Las Vegas must be credited for keeping many of the Neon manufacturers alive. From 2,500 plants in the thirties less than 500 have remained. The city's ever larger neon productions have been elevated to show before the show. Sign designers take many elements into consideration and many are designed around the auto and its patterns. Since it's creation businesses attempt to draw the passing driver into businesses and casinos. Perhaps this idea was copied from the ancient Firefly with it's glowing flight.

This artist is one who enjoys an abundantly thriving love of Neon. There is something about the light that is simply mesmerizing. Even the sound reminds me of catching lightning bugs in Grandma's driveway in the Midwest. Its beauty like the dancing colored gases of the Northern Lights. I don't know anyone who isn't stopped in their tracks by such a sight. Long live Neon!

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