Category Archives: Ghost Signs

American Ghosts : Ghost Signs of the United States

Extended to March 31, 2017!

Dr. Ken Jones

Walt Girdner Photo Studio & Gallery
27 S. El Molino, Pasadena, California

The gallery is next to the Pasadena Playhouse, so I’ll be at the gallery before performances.


Coca Cola / War Bonds and Stamps, Bald Knob, Arkansas

Painted by people who called themselves “Wall Dogs”, ghost signs, or painted brick ads, once covered almost every available brick wall in cities and towns across the United States. They advertised tobacco, soft drinks, alcohol, patent medicines, shoes – anything and everything.

Wood & Jones Printers / Campbell Seed Store, Pasadena, California

Starting in 2009, I have photographed nearly 8000 ghost signs in over 4000 cities and towns in 48 states. I photograph the signs in “high resolution” – mosaicking dozens to hundreds of individual images to produce as close to an archival version as possible. I have acquired and mosaicked almost half-a-million individual photos.

Walk-Ezy Foot Bath Tablets, Cripple Creek, Colorado

This exhibit includes a sampling of some of the more beautiful and entertaining ghost signs from around the United States, including Pasadena and Los Angeles. Most of these ghost signs were painted between 1895 and 1925. Besides the technical challenges, an additional challenge has been to create stand-alone photographs that capture the history and beauty of an overlooked, and rapidly disappearing, part of Americana. Many of the ghost signs in this exhibit have already been destroyed – painted over, demolished, covered by new construction, or “muralized.”

Altamaha Apiaries, Gardi, Georgia

I received a B.S from Caltech in 1969, and a Ph.D. from Brown University in 1974. I am a long time resident of Altadena, California. In the 1970‘s, I was a member of the Mars Viking Lander Imaging Flight Team at JPL. I was awarded the NASA Public Service award for his work on Viking Lander data. In 1979, I entered the motion picture industry working on a film for Roger Corman. Subsequently, I worked as a Visual Effects Supervisor around Hollywood with credits on films such as Titanic, The Parent Trap, Frida, and Contact.

Bowman Photographer / B. O. Kendall Company, Pasadena, California

I have worked with digital photography and image processing for decades. Combining technical and artistic skills developed in both aerospace and motion pictures, I have pioneered ways to photograph ghost signs in difficult situations. The challenges include removing pesky utility poles and wires that block the signs, and photographing signs in tight spaces, such as a three story high sign in a three foot wide alley. I have developed techniques to bring out the hidden ghost layers in signs, revealing the historical content of some of these signs for the first time in almost a century.

Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn, Stott, Ohio


“Muralizing” Ghost Signs

There seems to be a movement underway to restore ghost signs by doing what I call “muralizing” – repainting the most visible layer of a ghost sign with modern brilliant color paint.  While these restoration efforts may have good intentions , they are frequently done by people who have not researched the proper colors of the signs, or what hidden information may be contained in the fainter layers.

Here are a few examples of ghost signs that I have photographed that are now gone. I present my version and a few Google Street Views to show the changes.

Approximately 200 ghost signs that I have photographed are now gone.

Owl Cigar / Knights of Pythias Hall / Barber Shop, Socorro, New Mexico. It was probably the best ghost sign in the state, but has now been muralized.  Look at the rendition of the Owl sitting on the cigar.

Owl Cigar / Knights of Pythias Hall, Socorro, New Mexico
Owl Cigar / Knights of Pythias Hall, Socorro, New Mexico


Coca Cola, Bald Knob, Arkansas –  with the outline of a woman drinking a bottle of Coke.  The graphic, from WW2, is a profile similar to the “We Can Do It” poster.  Apparently, we can do it better with a bottle of Coke.  This graphic is now painted over.  This sign was included (not my photo) in the wonderful book “Ghost Signs of Arkansas” by Cynthia Haas published in 1997.  (In case you are wondering why my sign is “shorter” than the street view, it is because I trimmed away the right edge of the building to get a more contained final image.)

Coca Cola / War Bonds and Stamps / Barber Shop / Wardrobe Cleaners, Bald Knob, Arkansas
Coca Cola / War Bonds and Stamps / Barber Shop / Wardrobe Cleaners, Bald Knob, Arkansas

Newton’s Fidelity Flour / Golden Wedding Coffee, Boonville, Missouri :  I photographed the sign in 2012.  It was muralized sometime in 2015.  The middle version shows a hidden graphic,  now gone, for a brand of coffee manufactured in Kansas City, Missouri. I will talk about how these enhancements are done in a future post.

Rex Flour / Grand Hotel / Levi Strauss Overalls – Big Timber, Montana :  The sign contains two separate Levi Strauss signs, one which is only visible using image enhancement.  It says San Francisco Made / Copper Riveted.  Only the Rex Flour is preserved (a local Montana brand of flour).

American Ghosts – Image Mosaicking

The following is a brief overview of what goes into almost every ghost sign that I photograph.  The major goal is to create as close to an archival version of the sign, at high enough resolution as required, to see all of the painterly qualities of the original sign. An additional goal is also to obtain a “clean” final result where all of the foreground clutter is removed.  A final goal is to make the ghost sign appear to have been photographed “straight on” by using perspective correction in post-processing.

Photos are taken from multiple camera positions to “see” around foreground obstacles.  Multiple images are photographed at each camera position to increase resolution in the final image.  In some cases, this can result in hundreds of separate images from a dozen camera positions. The following illustrates the images that went into three separate camera positions for a ghost  sign in Helena, Montana.

The images from each camera position are then separately mosaicked. I use the program Stitcher from Autodesk – which is no longer available. Too bad. It has numerous features that I have not found in other mosaicking programs.

Then, in Photoshop, I isolate and remove foreground obstacles from each intermediate mosaic.  The poles and wires are highlighted in cyan in the following image.

The resulting intermediate mosaics are then aligned and blended in Photoshop. Since the sky and clouds change between camera setups, the sky in the final image must be replaced. The resulting images are 2 to 8 gigabytes.

It’s as simple as that!

American Ghosts : Opening Night

Gallery Show through March 25, 2017

Dr. Ken Jones

Walt Girdner Photo Studio & Gallery
27 S. El Molino, Pasadena, California

Opening Night & Reception

The gallery is next to the Pasadena Playhouse, so I’ll be at the gallery before and after performances.

I had a successful opening night at the Walt Girdner Photo Studio & Gallery.  Once it got busy, I wasn’t able to keep doing event photography.    Multiple items were sold, which pleases me greatly.

The large pieces are printed on 24″ x 36″ Museo Silver Rag paper, and are on display are in 30″ x 40″ frames.


I also have browse bins for many ghost signs, plus a smaller print option (17″x22″ paper) which I frame in 24″ x 30″ frames.

That’s me on the right, in the photo above, with the funny hat. The hat has been everywhere. A friend said that I am kind of like Indiana Jones (I’m a Dr. Jones too!) doing archaeology, except in an urban environment.  Therefore I wore the hat (but I didn’t think a leather whip was appropriate for an Art Opening).

I have a special wall for several ghost signs from Pasadena and Los Angeles.  The Los Angeles signs are either already gone, or will soon be gone.

The show features 30 ghost signs selected from a collection of over 7000 photographed in all 48 states.

Pillsbury's Best Flour / Agricultural Implements, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Pillsbury’s Best Flour / Agricultural Implements, Doylestown, Pennsylvania

Altadena Library Ghost Sign Talk

August 2016

I gave a talk on Ghost Signs at the Altadena Library in August 2016, and, due to popular demand, repeated it in January 2017.  Thanks to Dick Hodgman for these photos!

The talk was one-half about ghost signs, one-quarter about photographic methodology, and one-quarter stand-up comedy.  The gallery display included many ghost signs from Pasadena and Altadena.

Prior to the talk, I was interviewed by the Pasadena Weekly for an article about my ghost sign project.

Palace Theatre Light Capsules Show

February 25, 2017

I got together with Craig Winslow for his Light Capsules show at the Palace Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles.  The theater is at 633 S. Spring St.   This parking lot will soon be filled with new construction, so go see the original sign now. You can see more about his Light Capsules Project, sponsored by Adobe, on his website.

Craig Winslow / Ken Jones

Aligning the projected image with the real ghost sign.

Light Capsule Show w/ Craig Winslow

25 February 2017   Sunset to Late

I’m getting together with Craig Winslow – an Adobe Creative Resident – this Saturday, February 25,  for one of his Light Capsule shows, this one in Los Angeles. He is using one of my ghost signs, the one of the Palace Newsreel Theatre, to create a projectable  image onto the building that overlays the original image and creates a “restored” effect. This should be great fun.  He has an announcement on Facebook.

The ghost sign is located at 633 S. Spring St. in downtown LA.

Palace Newsreel Theatre, Los Angeles, California
Palace Newsreel Theatre, Los Angeles, California

Craig’s Light Capsule Trip

I’m also supplying Craig with an image of the Hubbell Trading Post in Winslow, Arizona.

Hubbell Trading Post, Winslow, Arizona
Hubbell Trading Post, Winslow, Arizona