Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Buy, BART Station, San Francisco, March 2007.

Back in 2007 when I shot this picture, I thought it was a wry comment about runaway consumerism in our society, where everywhere you turned screamed buy, buy, buy! A culture of excess. What a difference two years make. Nowadays, in our cash poor, stimulus-hungry economy, shopping has become a civic duty.

Those who forget the past... yeah,we know, but we repeat it just the same. Take Dorothea Lange's signs from the Great Depression: substitute "Obama" for "Olson," and you're back in the winter of 2008. Or the gas station sign from 1938. The same sign can be recycled for the angry mob that demands greedy heads to roll at AIG and Merrill Lynch.

Every overleveraged speculator who watched his credit rating go down the tubes last year will get a sobering slap on the wrist from Robert Frank's gambling hall sign from 1955. To risk what you can afford sounds logical enough, but the warning underestimates human nature's capacity for folly, which is the greatest risk of all.

Yet it is also true that time and again, we have seen how man has managed to pull himself up from the rut he has created. Through imagination, innovation, and resourcefulness, man has persisted, even prospered, when the notion of prosperity itself seemed far-fetched. So we turn to yet another sign, from W. Eugene Smith's colossal Pittsburgh Project, at a time when we are bereft of dreams. And if by chance it feels premature to dream that better things will come our way soon, perhaps we can agree to just settle for a good night's sleep.

Dorothea Lange, Newspaper Stand, San Francisco, 1939.
Dorothea Lange, Kern County, CA 1938.
Robert Frank, Untitled, 1955.
W. Eugene Smith, From Dream Street: The Pittsburgh Project, 1955.

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