Dukecity Sign* landed on my desk a couple weeks ago. In spare moments, I've spent quite a bit of time flipping through the thing. Hardcover. Almost no text aside from an introduction replicated in Japanese, Spanish and English. The rest of the book consists entirely of awful, full-color photographs of signs from all over Albuquerque.
What the ... ?
An accompanying letter informed me that Ben Adams, this weird book's creator, took all the photos himself with disposable cameras. In the book's introduction, he admits he doesn't know the first thing about photography. Yet for some reason he felt compelled to take on this quest, scouring Martineztown, Barelas, Nob Hill and almost every other neighborhood in the city for interesting signs. His mission took five years to complete.
“The more I travel around,” writes Adams in the introduction, “the more I appreciate New Mexico as a unique, fucked up, and beautiful place. I like to think that to know New Mexico is to know God, to know Alburquerque is to know mental illness. I hope the future is bright, but not too clean for the Duke City.”
Dukecity Sign* has been passed all over the Alibi office. It didn't take long for us to recognize this book for what it is: an astonishingly original homage to the true soul of our city. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Adams to talk about this peculiar project.
“I've been doing sushi in town for about 10 years,” he says. “Japanese Kitchen, Shogun in Nob Hill, Mr. Sushi in the Heights, Raw Downtown when it was still a sushi bar and now Crazy Fish.”
He learned the art under the owner of Crazy Fish. “Anyone can make sushi,” Adams insists. “But you have to learn speed to do order after order after order. That's when it gets complicated.”
When asked how Dukecity Sign* came about, he says his love of photo-heavy coffee table books led him to try something similar. He especially enjoys books such as Jamal Shabazz' The Time Before Crack, which captures ’80s-era New York street fashions.
“I've never taken a photo class, though,” he says. “I have no photo experience. But it seemed like if I didn't do this now, a lot of these signs would disappear. A lot of the signs in the book have already been altered or taken down. I didn't have time to enroll in college, get accepted and get a degree in photography. I had to do this now.”
A friend of his once told him that “Albuquerque is so out of style it's in style.” Adams wholeheartedly agrees. “It's a hick town. There's no way around it. It's always getting bigger, but it's still somehow this hick town with all this weird junk in it.”
Adams started the project up on west Central one day while casually taking photos with his ex-girlfriend. “There are a lot of interesting motel signs and stuff out there. It became a hunt, basically. If your brain is set on something, you unconsciously pick up what you're looking for.”
Eventually, he found himself with a gigantic stack of photos, wondering how to take the next step. After getting rejected by several publishers, Adams decided to use the print-on-demand outfit lulu.com. Of course, that option meant he had to take care of promotion himself.
“Actually, I was thinking I should give the mayor a copy,” he says, “and the very next day he came into Crazy Fish. I've served him sushi at other places around town, but he's never come into Crazy Fish. I figured if I give him the book, it would be good publicity, whether he loved it or hated it. So I showed it to him.”
The mayor seemed to react positively. He even asked Adams to sign it for him. Unfortunately, the restaurant was so busy that night, he didn't have a chance.
“I gave it to him partly for selfish reasons,” he says. “But I also wanted him to be aware that this is part of our history, and that there is a fan base of some kind for this.
“Most people think it's really great. Some guy at the sushi bar didn't like that I used the word 'fucked' in the intro, but he was just worried that this would hurt my sales. Another guy complained about how lousy the photos are, but, you know, it's like ‘crap chic.'”
Most seem to get it. What they might not get is the oddly placed asterisk in the title. Adams doesn't get that either, but he doesn't let it bother him.
“I know as little about computers as I know about photography,” he says. “So I hired a friend to design the book. For some reason, he really likes asterisks, and that was fine with me. It's just odd. Like, why do you put an asterisk in? Why not? I can live with it. I like it.”
Same goes for his friend's choice of the yellow submarine font for the cover. “I thought it was so not New Mexico I wanted to stick with it.”
Unfortunately, because of all the full-color photos, if you want your own copy of this fascinating book, you'll have to shell out 80 bucks, of which Adams will only receive $5.04. As with so many things in this world, the artist is always the first to get screwed.
“I feel weird about it,” he admits. “I put all this work into it. It's a big-ass book. It's color. But the price is definitely going to prevent a lot of people from buying it. The people who like it probably don't have the money to buy it. And the people that do have the money to buy it probably won't because it's too arty or not academic enough.”
For now, though, he's justifiably proud of his accomplishment. “The thing about signs is they're almost like telephone wires. Sometimes you just block them out and don't even notice they're there.”
Paging through Adams' book focuses the mind on an aesthetic aspect of life in Burque that too many of us habitually push to the background. Dukecity Sign* is an invitation to absorb the oddity of our cluttered visual landscape, to appreciate the tantalizing 'crap chic' that makes Albuquerque different from any other place on Earth. When you think about it that way, $80 doesn't seem like so much after all.