Signs of Our Times - Essay from 20 June 2011

The following essay was written to explain the motivation behind the project ‘Signs of Our Times’. Posting it now, in 2020, and observing some of my younger self’s naivety is at times a little embarrassing. It was written as an approach to a potential exhibitor. It didn’t work, fact it was a dismal failure - he dismissed me out of hand!

However, I thought sharing it in all its flawed glory would be interesting. I hope you find it interesting too.

‘Signs of Our Times’ - 20 June 2011

In short the project I’m working on is all at once an exploration, celebration and confrontation of and with the signage that dominates our urban horizon. To begin with let me give you some context.

I am 33 years old, married with 2 kids and employed as a Sales Engineer for Tektower (Pty) Ltd. We have a bond, 1 car paid, the other with a year to go, life insurance, house insurance, medical aid, credit cards and overdraft that we bounce off the bottom of, cell phones, telephone, school fees, vet bills - did I mention the 2 dogs - groceries, clothes, garden, club membership, RA, DIY, Dstv & ADT.

And more.

I used to be a full time photographer.

Having done my fair share of advertising, editorial and generally-whatever-work-I-could-get, I focused my efforts and realized my dream of being a specialist architectural photographer. I sold work to guys like Paragon Architects, Enrico Daffonchio and StudioMAS, who I’m sure you know are top ranked local architects. However, for a range of reasons, not least of them the lack of need for a specialist architectural photographer, I limped along financially, always hoping that things would turn. The day arrived when I lost that hope, so I grabbed an opportunity to get a job - any job - in Feb 2010 to sell cooling towers. Yes… cooling towers…

The blessing in disguise was that for the first time in years I was able to engage with photography without the constant pressure of needing to make money from it.

The continuous thread so far…money.

“How to make money.”

The world I live in is all about this. This is the meaning of life - “Make as much money as you can”.

Yes, this world is Johannesburg, a place that I was born & bred in - and still live in.

Everyone comes to Jo’burg cause its where the money is. Few people leave. Those that do have made as much money as they could.

Its all there is to the place - making money.

At first it was by digging for gold. It still is, but even better is by selling stuff.

“How do you make money?”

“I’ll tell you how”.

“Sell! Sell! Sell!”

“How do we sell?”

“Tell everyone about the shit that you sell!”

“Talk to them. Tell them. Show them.”

“If you tell 100, at least 10 will buy, so tell thousands!”

“Tell them where they can see it. Put an ad up - everywhere!”

“Fuck it! Sell adverts too! As many as you can, wherever you can, to whoever you can!”


“What? You say it looks kak? Who gives a shit? It looks awesome, just make sure the bastards pay us before you put it up.”

There are other places, I believe, where the pursuit of money is not the sole purpose of existence, but they are elsewhere, and this story isn’t about them. I also don’t know them, and this is my story.

In my time spent in Johannesburg, I’ve developed both an acute sensitivity to the pursuit of money, due mainly to my lack of talent for it, and an acute awareness for the built environment, which I have substantial talent for.

And so the fruition of this project.

The benefit of the sales job which I currently occupy is that it has taken me to the far corners and beyond of greater Johannesburg, mainly to industrial areas, in order to trade my wares.

I’m a photographer. I even stuck out 3 years at Pretoria Tech for a diploma to prove it (although I never actually picked up the certificate).

This project has been brewing in my mind for a while, although the process has been a latent one since it has admittedly been dormant for a long time. In 2008 I made a start by photographing billboards at night. My efforts fizzled out because of the strain it placed on my available resources at the time. However, the night billboards form an important chapter in the project. They are a theme of it that I still want to return to at an appropriate time.

However, the main body of work is that which I have shot on 8x10 colour negative during the past year, having made a start working on it on the 4x5 format.

After a short period in the Tektower job, I began to pack my camera in the boot whenever I knew that a distant site was to be visited the following day.

(For years I’ve wanted to pursue a personal project relating to architecture, but could never manage to justify the time, effort and expense required to really follow through with it. For the same reasons, I’d also never really developed any substantial theme to explore, so this set of circumstances finally presented me with my opportunity.)

To begin with, the signs project was a dead one in my mind and a part of the dark chapter of my failed photographic career. So in the attempt to begin something fresh, I decided to explore the concept of thresholds, which was the last design project I did before I dropped out of architecture at Wits in ‘97. The theme has always stuck with me and it was a decent enough place to start. It was a subject matter that I was getting plenty of exposure to via Tektower thanks to spending so much time travelling to all the diverse places.

But the more I looked out for interesting entrances to places, the more I started to see that they were adverts for those places, and so the more aware I became - again - of adverts (I’m talking primarily about billboard adverts). Then it was like those 3D posters where you suddenly see something that’s right in front of you and you wonder why it took you so long to click.

Its nearly impossible to look in any direction in or near Johannesburg and not have a sign, poster or billboard that’s advertising something in your line of sight. When photographing buildings, the constant challenge was to avoid the signs but get the best angle of view. With this project, technically, I’ve followed the same discipline as before, only I’ve turned the camera a little to the left.

Another way in which I relate so strongly to these public pronouncements is of course my struggle to come to terms with being a professional commercial photographer. I was a core participant in propagating these signs and indeed several of my assignments have been displayed on billboards and similar public adverts (eg trucks).

I believe there are many other points of discussion which this project has the potential to stimulate:

- The nature of our capitalist, free market based economy and how we engage with the principles of it locally.

- Our urban design and architecture.

- The political influences which enable our place to be what it is.

- Our collective culture and the physical manifestation of cultural influences.

- Our aesthetic.

All of the above sweeps broadly over the basis upon which the project is founded. The work itself perhaps speaks more metaphorically. The specific signs that I’ve chosen to photograph are quite a diverse range of samples. I’ve firstly chosen to photograph scenes which have caught my eye and attempted to not be too bogged down by anything other than making the photographs tell as interesting a story
as they can. These stories are aesthetic, ironic, absurd, novel, critical or even just about nothing. They’ve been captured in quite an opportunistic way because I’ve only been able to take photographs as and when my travels have allowed me – I haven’t really been able to plan shots.

Stephen Shore is an immense influence on me and the following by him is golden:

“To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility - that is what I am interested in.”

As it stands, I am in the infancy of this project. I have a bunch of negatives - about 40 on 8x10” and about 10 on 4x5”. I don’t know of anyone in South Africa who is capable of properly scanning my 8x10” negatives, so I will need to get them done overseas somewhere. But I’m at a point where I need to enter into conversation about it all before I continue.

1. Is my work and the concept behind it any good?

2. Does it have any value in ways that you are interested in being part of?

2. Are you interested in partnering me?

I look forward to hearing from you.


Tristan McLaren

©Tristan McLaren 2022
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