Frank Jump started photographing fading ads in 1997, he told audience members at a lecture he gave at the Greater Astoria Historical Society on Monday. Jump was taking a class on documentary photography, and came across an old advertisement for Omega Oil, painted on the side of a building in Harlem.
“It’s the first sign I took and it’s still alive,” he said after the meeting, explaining why it’s one of his favorites.
With 10,000 images of fading ads under his belt, Jump — whose book “Fading Ads of New York City” was published late last year by History Press —has seen a lot of signs come and go. Some, like the M. Rappoport’s ad featuring an image of a victrola in Jamaica, which Jump dates to 1905, are only revealed when a building is demolished, and can just as quickly get covered up again by new development. Others are so faded as to be easily missed, and still more get painted over or destroyed when a building is demolished.
“I hate to see them disappear,” he said of the signs. “But that’s life.”
Jump, 52, was born in the Rockaways and now lives in Flatbush with his spouse, Vincenzo Aiosa, who also chronicles the ads.
Like the Omega Oil sign, Jump himself is a survivor: in 1986, at the age of 26, he discovered he was HIV positive. He was told he would probably only live to 30. One of his first reactions, he said, was to go on a “spending binge.”
“I bought a recording studio, camera equipment. When I got depressed, I would go out to LaGuardia Airport and rent a Lincoln Town Car and ride upstate and pick up my grandmother.”
But, still alive over a decade later in 1997 and enrolled at Empire State College, he came upon the Omega Oil sign, and began putting all that photographic equipment to use as a self-described “accidental historian.”
For Jump, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn since 2000, the act of photographing ads in decay — their lead-based paint touting forgotten products like Fletcher’s Castoria, Reckitt’s Blue, Ruppert’s Beer and Krug’s Bread — is directly linked to his experience with AIDS.
“I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of friends disappear from AIDS,” he said. “A lot of my motivation doing the project has been seeing the world through that lens, seeing these signs as metaphors of survival.”
But rather than preserve the signs, Jump said he would prefer to see them left alone.
“Part of the beauty of it is the process of it fading. If you interrupt that process, you’ve stopped this chemical thing that’s been going for, let’s say, 110 years.”
In addition to the book he’s written, Jump’s work is chronicled on his blog at fadingad.com/fadingadblog, where his upcoming lectures are also listed. Visible on the blog are scores of images of ads from the 1900s (and earlier) through to the 1970s, taken all over New York and often in Queens.
And many of the images he showed to Monday’s audience had stories attached to them. The Ruppert’s Beer sign on 21st Street in Astoria, for example, led to a discussion of Jacob Ruppert Jr., born in 1867, who became a New York Yankees owner and a congressman.
Other signs point to the “dollar and a dream story,” as Jump called it, so common in America in the 1900s.
An image of an ad for J. J. Friel Loans painted on a building in Park Slope, Brooklyn, led Jump to talk about his findings on Friel, who according to Jump, immigrated to the United States and started out as a ditch-digger in Brooklyn. Friel eventually worked his way into the good graces of a pawn-shop owner before owning the shop outright and starting his own small loan empire, with three branches including one in Jamaica. The story is documented in Jump’s book.
And while he’s already photographed so many signs, Jump doesn’t doubt there are more. “The city is constantly being rebuilt and torn down,” he said. “There’s always going to be a new ad revealed.”