Sunday, October 31, 2010

Poster Boy


There’s no such thing as time travel, but a trip to the International Vintage Poster Fair comes awfully close.

The event is really meant for serious collectors, which rules me out, but I enjoy looking at these fabulous images that can combine art, history, politics, and advertising all on a single sheet of paper.

This may be hard for young people to believe, but posters were a primary method of getting your message out back in the days before TV and the Internet. They’ve been called the "seven-second medium," since that's about all the time they had to catch the eye of a speeding pedestrian.

The artists who created these illustrations did so knowing that they wouldn’t last long. The posters would go up on a wall or fence where they might be stolen or defaced and eventually covered up by another poster. But that didn’t stop these people from doing great work.

I got interested in vintage posters a few years ago when I did a story for TheStreet.com.

The economy was booming way back in ‘06 and the site had a feature section called “The Good Life,” which ran stories about expensive activities that would allow people to dump their excess cash and have fun at the same time. It all seems like such a long time ago…

I really wanted to contribute to this section but I had trouble coming up an idea. Then one night I was on the elevator, looking at one of those TV monitors that so many elevators have now, and I saw a notice about the poster fair flashing across the screen.


So I went to the Metropolitan Pavilion on 18th Street, had a blast, and started interviewing vintage poster dealers all around the country.

“These posters weren’t meant for us,” a dealer in Hawaii told me, which was one of my favorite quotes in that story. No, he said, they were meant to be seen by people living 70, 80, or 100 years ago. The ones that survived give us a feel for day-to-day life in another era.

You can get some very nice posters for under $1,000, which is a lot cheaper than many paintings. But if you’ve got the money, you can easily spend thousands of dollars.

And you can choose any number of themes for your collection: travel, propaganda, film, or war, for example. You can also collect posters from a particular era or focus on the work of an individual artist.

The travel posters make you long for the days of great ships and railroads when the world seemed to be a more exotic place. Movie posters remind us that the classics we rent from Netflix were once playing in theaters and the actors we now consider icons were once living and breathing human beings.

It’s fun to view posters in other languages and try to figure out what is being advertised. I saw one poster advertising a performer named Miss Dore and a small dog known as “L'Inimitable Dick.”

A poster advertising a psychic showed the face of a man in a turban with a huge question mark behind him, and the words “Alexander: The Man Who Knows” running across the bottom. I don’t know what Alexander knew, but I do know he had a pretty cool poster.

One of the dealers was going through a pile of his stock and I saw a poster for the 1939 World’s Fair, which my father used to tell us about when we were kids. The very next poster advertised the 1964 World’s Fair--where my father took us when we were kids.

The posters from World War II were particularly memorable, largely because my father was a veteran of that conflict.

There were rousing messages calling upon people to be strong and to support our fighting men. Looking around at today’s toxic political environment, it’s hard to believe that Americans were ever so united.

Many posters warned people to keep their mouths shut—the old “loose lips sinks ships” theme. One of the most memorable was an image of a drowning serviceman pointing his finger directly at the viewer and bearing the words “Someone Talked!

There were enemy posters as well. One Italian poster depicted a bombed out church being looted by an African-American soldier who was drawn to resemble a marauding ape. The message was quite clear: Evil black American soldiers are going to overrun our country.

The fair isn't the biggest event in town, but I hung around for a couple of hours enjoying all the artwork and collecting memories that will last a lot longer than seven seconds.

1 comment:

Gal From Brooklyn said...

I can see why you spent a couple of hours there. Those posters are of another age, really, and it's fun to envision the world in which they were created. They are part of a different era. I was too young to remember the '64 World's Fair, but I'm sure what was termed cutting edge then, is now ordinary.