An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections
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  • Memphis by Hand: Creative Small-Business Advertising

    Amie Vanderford, Photographer

    7 July 2008
    In these photographs, taken between 2005 and 2008, Amie Vanderford samples hand-painted, commercial signs in Memphis neighborhoods. Vibrant and changing markers on the cityscape, these signs situate neighborhood identity, from historically African American Orange Mound, to gentrifying areas such as Uptown and Midtown, and tourist destinations in Whitehaven and Soulsville.

    Photo Essay

    Map of Memphis neighborhoods
    Map of Memphis Neighborhoods
    (Base Map Data: US Census Bureau)

    Photographer's Statement

    While I didn't seek out hand-painted signs, I noticed their emergence as a pattern in my photo travelogue of Memphis shortly after I moved here in 2004. I felt drawn to their imperfect beauty. In a city of much poverty, racism, and crime, the sheer volume of these colorful hand-painted signs speaks of persistent creativity and the spirit of small business. The sheer volume of these signs in the city affirms the popularity of this mode of expression and suggests that small businesses continue to function as cultural landmarks at the center of neighborhood geography, despite the encroachments of corporate chains and developer-planned communities. Owners often collaborate with local artists, as in the case of the mural at Hawk's Bar & Grill, painted by James "Brick" Brigance. A native of Orange Mound, Brigance adorned many neighborhood buildings with hand-stenciled and freehand advertising for local businesses. Such work suggests that small-business advertising can be a collective endeavor, relying on neighborhood talent and artistic vision. 

    About the Photographer

    Amie Vanderford is a freelance photographer currently living in Memphis and working primarily in the non-profit sector. Vanderford's work has been featured in a wide range of publications, silent auctions for charity, and exhibits including the "Women in Photography 20th Anniversary Tea Time Exhibit," "photo l.a. 2002" and "Photo Impact" in Los Angeles, and a two-woman exhibit at the Loft Gallery in San Francisco. In 2006 a limited-edition book of her Memphis photographs was sold at Burke's Book Store. 2008 finds Amie working on the photo-per-day "Memphis Project 366," in which she captures hidden and overlooked city scenes.

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    Recommended Resources


    Ask Vance
    Memphis trivia blog companion to the monthly Memphis Magazine print column Ask Vance.

    Backroads of American Music
    A site that explores juke joint culture and "overlooked" Memphis musicians.

    Veni Harlan, "Signs of Baton Rouge."
    An online photography exhibit about hand-painted commercial signage in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

    Memphis Celebrates Soul
    A blog about the "Soul" culture of music and food in Memphis, Tennessee.

    Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
    This site features information about past, present, and future exhibitions of art and photography at the Brooks Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

    The Memphis Flyer
    An online city newspaper featuring information about the Memphis community and culture.

    2007 Memphis Flyer article about local muralist and sign painter James "Brick" Brigance who painted the Hawk's Bar & Grill wall.

    Preston Lauterbach's Blog
    A blog run by Preston Lauterbach about the forgotten people and places that make up the "Memphis Sound."

    Mississippi River Corridor – Tennessee
    The Mississippi River Corridor in Tennessee project works to conserve natural, cultural, and scenic resources in West Tennessee.

    Neighborhoods in Memphis, Tennessee, Wikipedia entry.,_Tennessee

    Stax Museum
    The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, located at the original site of Stax Records, holds a collection of more than 2,000 interactive exhibits, films, artifacts, items of memorabilia, and galleries about Stax artists and the history of the recording studio.

    Amie Vanderford, "Project 366 - 2008."

    William Eggleston's website
    Eggleston is an influential color photographer from Memphis, Tennessee.

    Joe York, "With Signs Following...Religion on the Southern Roadside."
    An online photography exhibit from the University of Mississippi.

    Print Materials

    Branston, John. Rowdy Memphis. Brentwood, Tennessee: Cold Tree Press, 2004.

    Withers, Ernest. Memphis Blues Again. Viking Studio, 2001.

    Wright, Sharon D. Race, Power, and Political Emergence in Memphis. Taylor and Francis, 2007.

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