Lush photography book illuminates S.F.’s neon history 

click to enlarge "San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons" celebrates The City's neon signs with color photos. - COURTESY  PHOTO
  • "San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons" celebrates The City's neon signs with color photos.
The City’s neon is slowly disappearing, according to creators of the new picture book “San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons.”

"Even in the five years since we started work on the book, dozens of neon signs have been removed from the city's landscape. It's our hope that this book will serve as a catalyst for San Franciscans to preserve legacy neon signs,'' says photographer Al Barna, who self-published the book with graphic designer Randall Ann Homan.

The handsome 7- by 9-inch hardcover volume is more celebratory than it is elegiac. Each page is a beautifully reproduced photograph (most are full color), accompanied by subtle notes with relevant information: the address of the sign, the photographer, the year photo was taken.

Subjects of the 200 images range from the magnificent to the mundane. Signs of hotels, motels, pizzerias, bars, movie theaters, shoe stores, cafes and restaurants are pictured. Many are illuminated, some are not. Some, such as the spectacular “City of Paris” sky sign now atop Neiman Marcus, are famous. Many are unassuming, such as the “quiet through tunnel” sign at the entrance to the Stockton tunnel.

Succinct commentary – written by Tom Downs, author of “Walking San Francisco,” Eric Lynxwiler, a neon expert and architecture historian, as well as Barna and Homan – accompany about 45 of the photos. About the “quiropractico” sign at 2533 Mission St., they say, “There is no evidence of any chiropractors on this block today, but this seems to be the last surviving bilingual neon sign in the Mission District.”

Or at Sunset Shoe Repair, on 621 Irving St.: “Once it seemed that every neighborhood in San Francisco had a neon shoe repair sign in the shape of a giant shoe hovering over the sidewalk. Now there are only three extant shoes, and the neon is gone on all three.”

A handy photo index by neighborhood is helpful for those who want to find the signs on walking or driving tours. Color coded, it even indicates whether signs are working and illuminated or missing neon tubes and in need of repair.

In the foreward, Downs passionately explains why neon should be saved, and not in museums or scrap metal yards, but in context. He writes: “It enhances a cityscape, keeps a city’s spirits up in the week small hours and in all kind of weather, casts color on drab pavements, bounces crazy reflections off dark windows, draws the eye upward to where you might not otherwise be looking.”


San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons

By: Al Barna and Randall Ann Homan

Published by: Giant Orange Press

Pages: 149

Price: $33


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Jim Van Buskirk

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