A lot of people use Pinterest to save products or inspiration they love for later. But what if you’re literally trying to save the things you love and preserve them by sharing your art? Enter Recapturist, the site run by Bill Rose: a guy who’s out to photograph, save (and pin) vintage neon signs in America before they disappear. We hope you’ll enjoy the pinterview about his mission, how he got started, and his lifelong love for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
To kick things off, can you share a few facts about yourself?
Vitals: Male – 36 – Married – Minneapolis – Humane Omnivore – Digital Marketer by Day – Recapturist by Night
Western Motel (Santa Clara, CA)
And what is Recapturist?
Recapturist is the intersection of several things I’m passionate about: photography, road trips, preserving vintage signs, and the ‘micro-history’ of America.
Each year I drive thousands of miles along the nearly forgotten two-lane highways and back roads of America on a never-ending quest to photograph whatever vintage neon signs I can find. These relics of the American roadside have stood for decades but are now highly endangered as ‘progress’ continues to win the war against preservation in many parts of the country.
Frankly, we are close to losing these signs forever. I consider it my job to make sure that they will at least live on through pictures should traditional preservation efforts fail.
The result is a gallery of fine art photographs documenting these signs, which I accompany with whatever details about their history I can uncover. The money I generate by selling prints and canvas art of my work goes toward funding future trips, enabling me to document even more signs.
Apollo Superette (Austin, MN)
As you mentioned, all of your photos are accompanied with a story about that business or place. Why is preservation so important to you and how can others get involved?
I’ve noticed that many documentary photographers often neglect to communicate the story behind the image they worked so hard to produce. I feel that providing context is a critical step in helping the viewer connect more deeply with the artwork, especially when the goal is preservation. Think about it, why would anyone make an effort to preserve something they don’t know anything about? So, having some sort of story to tell about each image is critical to my process. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to have conversations with people directly connected to the sign while I am there shooting it (the business owner, a local historian, etc.) Other times I rely on information gathered from online sources or by reaching out other like-minded preservationists I’ve met through the years. On some occasions I’ve even been known to call the business owner for an interview after the fact. Whatever it takes to attach some significance to the image I am presenting. This is what I mean by the ‘micro-history’ of America.
The easiest way for someone to get involved is by supporting one of the many preservation-focused organizations that already exist. Here are two that I am very familiar with and highly recommend:
1) The Society for Commercial Archeology (SCA) is devoted to the study and preservation of American roadside architecture. Membership prices are very reasonable and you’ll be instantly connected to hundreds of like-minded preservationists from across the country.
2) The American Sign Museum is a must see if you are anywhere near Cincinnati. The museum features an overwhelming collection of rescued & restored signs (mostly neon, but some as old as the sign industry itself) and is something you simply have to see to believe. Inexpensive memberships are offered and donations are also accepted if you can’t support them with a visit.
Abandoned Motel (Hecker, IL)
You describe your mission as Recapturist “is to capture, preserve and share the increasingly endangered beauty of vintage signs through photography.” What was your very first “recapture” and how did you stumble upon it or find it?
The seed for all of this was planted back in 2006. I was living in Seattle and had just purchased my first real digital camera. About that same time I started to notice all the old motel signs that dotted a notoriously sketchy strip of Aurora Ave sometimes referred to as “The Blade”. So one Saturday, I took my camera and walked up and down the street shooting every sign from a variety of angles. I quickly realized that the full personality and character of these neglected structures were much more obvious when viewed up close through my camera lens. I was hooked – and I’ve been doing it ever since.
It sounds like Recapturist was borne out of a love for many things: photography, craftsmanship, history, and road-tripping. Besides all those, what other interests do you have?
I have a strong appreciation for great aesthetics, especially vintage and vintage-inspired design. I’m really into logos, typography, hand-lettering, letter press, and many other random things that catch my eye. This is pretty well reflected in my Pinterest boards. Sometimes I get so inspired that I want to drop everything and enroll in design school just so I can start creating things like that myself.
I’ve also been known to occasionally spend an hour or two combing through Google’s newspaper archives. Did you know you can scan issues dating back to the 1800s? In a world that greatly overuses the adjective ‘amazing’, this is one resource that truly is. I’ll pick a newspaper like the St. Petersburg Times and study what the ads looked like in back in the 50s & 60s. The fonts, layouts, designs, phrases… It’s one of the most authentic ways I know for design-lovers to experience a piece of the past.
Cork ‘n Bottle (Yankton, SD)
How has pinning been useful for you?
I use Pinterest in a few different ways. As a photographer, it’s been a fantastic platform for getting my work in front of new audiences. The very fact that Pinterest is a picture-driven platform aligns perfectly with visual arts like photography. Every interaction a Pinner has with Recapturist leads to a greater awareness of my work and hopefully a greater appreciation for vintage signs in general. My customers tend to have a modern eye and nostalgic heart – so it also doesn’t hurt that this demographic is in ample supply on Pinterest.
Another way I use Pinterest is to tell stories that I otherwise couldn’t articulate. Example… I recently decided to rebrand Recapturist but didn’t exactly what I was looking for design-wise. So I started a board titled ‘New Identity Inspiration’ and began pinning every design that I though could help me define my vision there. After dozens and dozens of pins some distinct patterns started to emerge which allowed me to begin crafting a set of design guidelines with exceptional clarity. And as a bonus, there were a handful of designers whose work kept getting pinned to the board. Those were the designers I turned to first with the project. I eventually pared the board down to just the most relevant designs which was shared with the designer I ultimately hired. That board proved to be a critical guide throughout the development process. And now that it’s done I couldn’t be happier with the result – and it honestly might not have been possible without Pinterest.
Arrow Head Motel (Columbia, MO)
Finally, we have to ask: What’s the story behind your 70’s Steelers board?
My ‘70s Steelers’ board is a collection of images that are intertwined with my early childhood. In 1976, the Pittsburgh Steelers had just won back-to-back Super Bowls reversing 40+ tortuous years of futility. A city that was falling on hard economic times was suddenly whipped into a frenzy. Pittsburghers had hope again because the Steelers were finally winners. This is the backdrop I was born into. My dad wasted no time initiated me (his first born) as a Steelers fan. Before I could ride a bike I could name the entire starting roster. Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert… these guys became my childhood heroes. In fact, whenever I’d stay with my grandparents, the only way they could get me to sleep was to tell me their roll-out cot used to be Terry Bradshaw’s. Thinking back on it now I’m pretty sure they were lying.