“Signs, signs, signs, everywhere a sign.” So begins the song “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band. Growing up, I loved not only the song, but also the way the band’s name rolled off my tongue.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about signs. It seems they show up in my image library like a well loved song.

Help Keep The River Clean
Ludington, Michigan 2013

What is it about these signs I photograph? Are they clever, humorous, beautiful? Maybe, maybe not. It finally occurred to me – I photograph signs made by the human hand. The grammer might be off, the spelling in error, the lettering lopsided. Yet each sign shares a human emotion-“a pre social media message”.

“Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” The signs I am drawn to convey a warning or a plea from one human to another. “Help Keep The River Clean” is one of my favorites. This homemade trash can along the Pere Marquette River in Michigan is about 25 miles downstream from the section of river I called home. It is close to the shores of Lake Michigan. When I look at it I think of the person who cared enough to put up a trash can and a message that says “Hey, I love this place. Help me keep it clean.”

I have another favorite sign, “Beware of Snakes” (open in new tab). This bullet ridden wooden sign in southern New Mexico sits on a hillside of grass and mesquite – perfect rattlesnake territory. I wonder what inspired someone to build the snake sign and install it. Did someone’s child or dog encounter a rattler? Rattlesnake encounters are not uncommon in many parts of New Mexico, so why here? What happened?

The more I look at the signs I’ve photographed the more I realize it’s not the physical sign that interests me. What moves me is the unseen hand and the heart behind the sign. I know each and every one of us has it in our heart to make a sign, to protect and care for the things we love.

The Five Man Electrical Band song is also about more than physical signs. It’s about a man who is denied entry because of landownership, denied service because of his clothing, and denied a job because of his hair. At the end of the song he sees a church sign which welcomes him. It is only then he writes up his own sign:

“So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign. I said “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine.”

The Five Man Electrical Band, “Signs

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