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Sign Language

Bright, bold, and at times bizarre, billboards of the ’50s and ’60s—revealed here in arecently discovered trove of photos—speak to a city on the move

With some 900 electronic billboards arriving on streets, and office buildings already wrapped in jumbo ad banners, activists are raising pitchforks to protest what they see as visual pollution. It’s a grand old struggle. In 1899, when horses filled intersections, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “A fight is soon to be made over the continuance of the tall, unsightly billboards, with their crude pictures advertising mineral water and patent medicine.” Outdoor advertising is woven into L.A.’s genome. It’s always carried the imprint of the city’s culture and our aspirations, whether in today’s digital balderdash of Coke and the Jonas Brothers or the long-forgotten promises of quacks or a midcentury industrial optimism barely recalled. Last year photographer Gary Leonard received a phone message. “This fellow said his office was throwing out a cabinet of Kodachrome slides documenting billboards of the ’50s and ’60s,” says Leonard, “and did I want them?” Leonard did, and from those anonymously shot photos he’s created an installation of nearly 100 images that on June 13 debuts at his downtown gallery, Take My Picture. In these signs a sun-dazzled city dreams of a future: supercars powered by jet fuel, polling stations that actually draw voters, an L.A. Times that subscribers will find “fun” and “exciting.” Brand names and faces break out from the margins, as if ready to jump into the backseat of our Belvedere. Some of those faces appear garish and alien; we can’t avoid the dark David Lynch lens when gazing back on the ’50s. Yet if a saltine is so tasty it can illuminate a smile in an atomic megaglow, so what? That cracker still looks good.

Birley’s soda, April 1957

Oldsmobile, September 1954

Moulin Rouge, March 1960

York Cigarettes, January 1962

Los Angeles Times, July 1961

Chevron, May 1956

Election Day, September 1956

Pepsi-Cola, February 1957

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