Warning sign, France [Alamy image ref: AR6NRH]

I have a growing collection of signs and logos which are now under their own “Directions” pseudonym on Alamy… directions being an overall category for information on conditions, going somewhere, advice on something, advertising this, promoting that… signs that lead you to something else.Generally I photograph them – especially road signs – in sunlight with a bright blue sky as a backdrop… “bleu, blanc et rouge” being the French, British and American national flag colours and very eye-catching when combined.

The problem with ‘straight on’ shots, however, is that the background often doesn’t show the viewer what the sign indicated. To have shown a car upended in a ditch next to this ‘slippery road’ sign would have been an excellent picture opportunity… but is one very rarely seen. – perhaps because drivers really do take caution in these places!

In bright sun there’s another problem… flare! All modern road signs are highly reflective… and any sun striking them is likely to reflect into the camera. From a reasonable distance a long lens can cancel this effect whereas with a wide-angle the problem is exaggerated. I nearly always experience this when I automatically shoot an alternative worm’s-eye view with only the sky as a plain backdrop. These unnatural views are more dynamic and graphic, especially shot with a very wide-angle lens, but they can become isolated and ‘float’ in mid-air with less connection to their related hazard.

To reduce the background (receding perspective) in this shot I used a 12~24mm Nikkor wide-angle zoom set at around at 17mm… but it wasn’t that simple. With such ‘clean’ subjects – they look very good when pristine but most unattractive when dirty and splattered with mud – I spend an unhealthy amount of time cleaning them up… both at the scene with a damp baby-bum wipe I keep in a plastic bag; and later in Photoshop. For all that extra work, it was licensed to an educational textbook publisher in the Netherlands for a 5-year period.

BTW: I always admire the accuracy of French road distances (I measured it on my fixie-cycle and it is 2,1 kilometers exactly) but wonder how the car’s skid marks could possibly have touched as shown in the illustration. Perhaps the artist had been drinking rather too much for lunch!

French postage stamps by artist Ben [Alamy image ref: B11445]

I saved this block of modern French stamps from a package that had arrived in the post with the intention of bundling them with other foreign envelope clippings and selling them as a cheap lot on eBay. What caught my eye though, was the simple graphic hand-written style message by French artist Ben which read, “ceci est une invitation”(‘this is an invitation’) in strong red on yellow… which struck me as an interesting graphic message in itself with some sales potential.

My used block was large enough to have included almost two dozen stamps… but I framed the item through my 55mm Nikkor macro lens and gradually closed-in so the graphic message was stronger. Tilting the camera about 15 degrees from the horizontal produced a more dynamic feeling – and the postal cancels in each corner added balance and framing.

Similar ‘messages’ from Ben, in the same quick, hand-written style appear on many French items, especially exercise writing books for the younger generation… so there is obviously an attraction for this art-form as well as a recognized and growing market.

Many non-French readers here will probably not be aware of Ben, so I include some info and a bio from Wikipedia… Ben Vautier (born on July 18, 1935 in Naples, Italy), also known simply as Ben, is a French artist whose official web site (in French) is at

Vautier lives and works in Nice, where he ran a record shop called Magazin between 1958 and 1973. He discovered Yves Klein and the Nouveau Réalisme in the 1950s, but he became quickly interested in the French dada artist Marcel Duchamp, the music of John Cage and joined the Fluxus artistic movement in the 1960s. In 1959, Vautier founded the journal Ben Dieu. In 1960, he had his first one-man show, Rien et tout in Laboratoire 32.

He is also active in Mail-Art and is mostly known for his text-based paintings – and examples of the latter include “L’art est inutile. Rentrez chez vous” (Art is Useless, Go Home)… and the 2004 postage stamp design above.

My image was licensed by Alamy as a 1/4-page reproduction to a school/college textbook publisher in the Netherlands for a 5-year period… and for a fee many times the original cost of the stamps from the post office. So it’s worth stopping to think about the visual aspects of throwaway items and ephemera and making a few exposures… it may surprise you when such an image is used in such a completely unexpected way!

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