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On the Neon Trail
Something about the way it dances and flickers...
“There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. Fifteen stories high, solid marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.”
There is something about neon. I have always felt it. My eyes have always been drawn to it. When there is neon on the horizon, my nose turns towards it. And I know I’m not the only one because, when I began to post photos of neon signs many years ago on the internet, other people would light up, just like a neon sign. There is something about neon.
Something about that noble gas (Symbol Ne and atomic number 10) that lights up the neural centers and causes as-yet unexplained emotional responses in the brain. These translate to spiritual longings for the past, the future, the open road and other nebulous arenas, NONE OF WHICH can be explained by science, but which everyone automatically recognizes as truth. Neon is the gateway to other dimensions. Neon is magic.
As an aside, 50% of the world’s neon comes from Ukraine, and there is now a shortage of neon and other rare gases, such as Krypton and Xenon. This is bad news for chipmakers, and we can leave it at that. Suffice it to say that, if a butterfly flaps its wings in Asia, a lightbulb may explode in Newark. Everything is connected. We are on a continuum. Life is short, and you’d better enjoy every sandwich while you still can, to paraphrase Warren Zevon.
There is something about that noble gas, once it gets a small charge of electricity through an electrode inside a glass tube and begins to glow. Something about the way it dances and flickers, then passes through the cornea, enters the pupil, hits the retina, and on to the photoreceptors. These turn the light into electrical signals and they hit the optic nerve in the brain. The brain then translates these waves into what you see. That’s the lowbrow scientific explanation of how we ingest neon, but I like to believe in a higher plane. When it comes to lights and photos, I believe in alchemy.
Once it hits my brain, neon evokes feelings that are not easy to explain. It’s like watching fire. And that’s the closest analogy I can come up with. It’s similar to the feeling we get when we watch burning flames. Something primitive that cannot easily be described with mere words. Which is why I should stop talking and get to the photos. I have enough good photos of neon to publish a series of them every month for years. This may be the genesis of a book.
I’ll spit out a few salient words on each photo - only because people ask for information when I don’t provide it - and then move on to the next one. I may continue to include pithy thoughts on the nature of neon. I may not. Best to let the photons speak for themselves.
1. New York City, 7th Avenue South - 2012
This place has been around forever and they have maintained their neon, which is more than I can say for many places in New York or the East Coast. Other parts of the country seem to value and preserve their neon far more, especially in California. I don’t know why.
2. New York City, the Lower East Side - 2007
This sign may or may not still light up. I’ll try to swing by there at some point and see what the status is. Not that it matters. Most neon is utilitarian, working neon, and this is no different. They have a message and want to spread the word. There are a bunch of neon crosses in Manhattan, but a few have flickered out in the past ten years.
3. New York City, 6th Avenue - 2020
Some people cherish Jesus, some cherish liquor, and some cherish pastrami. This sign is in the window of a diner that used to maintain its glorious signage but, since the pandemic, has let much of it go dark. It saddens me, but many things sadden me and I’m powerless to do a thing about it. I can take photos and try to remember. Don’t get me talking about memory. That’s for another article.
4. Southern Florida, probably Hollywood - 2014
I shot this little sign on the side of a motel back in the late 1990s. Then I shot it again. And again. This version is from 9 years ago. It always looks about the same and, at this point, I think I shoot it every time to celebrate its continued existence, along with the ancient motel it’s attached to. Motel signs are what got me going on this whole business. I have always loved motel signs.
5. New York City, Greenwich Avenue - 2005
Most of the shots here are from New York, but the majority of my neon photos are from elsewhere. How to explain this disparity? I plead ignorance. If photos of neon were money, I’d be a rich man. Sadly, they are not, nor am I. But the photos make me happy, so perhaps there is wealth in that. I’m sick of the current cultural need to find value in everything. I’m sick of the focus on money, especially in the art world. It makes me happy to see my memories of neon dancing in those glass tubes. Those tubes that were formed by an artisan, then connected to sockets, filled with gas and hooked up to transformers. Neon, like shoe repair places, has become an endangered species.
6. Brooklyn, New York, probably McDonald Avenue under the Elevated - 2015
Neon is a living thing, unlike LED lighting, which has rapidly taken over the world of signage and which is not only a dead thing, but also annoying. Yes, I’m opinionated. LED lights are being pushed by installers and LED makers as a cheap alternative, but they look like crap. They don’t illuminate well and there is no art to it. Anyone can tack some LEDs onto a sign. They annoy the eye and disrupt the brain. I have had to learn how to shoot LED signs, but they never give joy. I get more out of a broken neon sign than an LED display.
7. NYC, Greenwich Village, West 4th Street - 2007
Fedora was sold. They took down the sign for a while. When they put it back, they had changed the colors, straightened out the letters and, incredibly, reversed the words on it. They turned the sign around on itself. This is the original sign. Just like the city, it’s now a memory. Still, the glory of the neon persists. Chandler was right. Make that monument fifteen stories high and then light it up with neon.
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Paul Vlachos is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was born in New York City, where he currently lives. He is the author of “The Space Age Now,” released in 2020, “Breaking Gravity,” in 2021, and the just-released “Exit Culture.”