Do you remember the ransom notes left behind by kidnappers and villains in movies? The notes made up of different letters cut out of magazines? My first encounter with the concept of a ransom note was while watching a movie called Baby’s Day Out. The 1994 movie, aimed at kids, tells the story of a toddler kidnapped by three crooks disguised as photographers (funny, huh?). The kidnappers then leave a ransom note constructed from letters cut from magazines. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not encouraging kidnapping here, or any criminality for that matter. But this project does involve building up a photographic library of text, for artistic purposes only!
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not encouraging kidnapping here, or any criminality for that matter. But this project does involve building up a photographic library of text, for artistic purposes only!
We encounter so much written language these days that it is often overlooked as a photographic subject. Written language in any environment is made up of an endless combination of fonts, colors, shapes, and applications. Of course, there are random text generators online, but automated programs won’t add anything to your photographic practice.
By scoping out letters in the field you’ll train your photographic senses to seek out unusual subjects, an invaluable skill for any photographer. By concentrating on an unusual yet familiar subject, you can build up an interesting and varied typographic library. It’s a great way to view the world through the written word.
Some history of the alphabet
The first true alphabet was created roughly four thousand years ago in the land of Canaan. The alphabet, containing between 20-32 individual letters, didn’t contain any vowels so people had to guess what vowel sound followed each consonant based on what the word looked like. Despite this, the system worked and ended up replacing the complex system of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The new alphabet meant that people didn’t need to memorize thousands of different symbols, allowing more people to communicate through the written word. The Greeks added vowels to the alphabet – creating the first alphabet with a letter to represent every sound in a language. From there, the alphabet spread to Italy where it evolved into the Latin alphabet. The English alphabet evolved after the Romans took the Latin language to Anglo-Saxons England, who amalgamated the Latin and runic alphabet.
What you will need
One of the great things about this project is that it doesn’t require any special equipment. You can simply grab your camera and you are good to go! However, there are a few items that you can pack to make your trip a little easier.
Bring along a folded piece of paper and a pen to take a tally of the letters you photograph. This way you won’t have to constantly scroll through the photos you have taken previously to check if you’ve stocked up on a particular letter. This is also useful when tracking numbers or upper and lower-case letters you’ve photographed. To separate the tally of each letter more easily, I use a highlighter. That way you won’t get mixed up or add a mark under the wrong letter.
Scouting for letters
Like many subjects, once you start looking for something, you become attuned to the sight of it. This honing-in on detail is an invaluable skill for photographers, who often have to decipher both the detail and greater landscape simultaneously.
For starters, try collecting letters to make up a phrase. Then go on to building the whole alphabet. The more variety the better. As an extra challenge, try photographing a different source for each letter or add numbers to the mix.
I found plenty of material from traffic and warning signs alone. You may notice that many signs are made up of eye-catching colors. Red and yellow shades draw attention, so they are commonly used for warnings. By incorporating these bright colors into your collage, you’ll create a very attractive composition. You could even photograph the labels on tins and packets of food. Though if you’re doing this in a supermarket or grocer, be sure to check with the manager first.
Signage, graffiti, names etched into concrete, there is an endless supply of letters for you to photograph. Post your results in the comments below and nobody gets hurt!