Type safari

If you have a bit of time on your hands (or indeed if you don’t, but are procrastinatively inclined), may I recommend a stroll down the infinite scroll of typesetting.co. It’s an archive of type found on the streets of Leeds – all the painted, stencilled, chiselled, carved, forged, tiled, scrawled, unique, peculiar characters that populate the city. A welcome change from the sterile perfection that your computer beams into your eyes all day long.

Inspired by this, I’ve taken it upon myself to explore the veritable type safari on my own doorstep, to photograph the wild words of York. It’s a very different city to Leeds, significantly more compact and touristic, less susceptible than its industrial neighbour to the effects of commercial regeneration and Greggsification. But there’s still a lot to unearth here. It was built by Vikings, Romans, printers, chocolatiers, philanthropists, tourists; a jumble of history crammed together in a maze of streets and Snickelways and Shambles, all of it peppered with type. Some of it is obsolete, some of it is still functional, all of it is interesting. And I want to capture it all.

So now, any time I’m out and about – when I’m meant to be errand-doing or child-fetching or pub-frequenting – I’ll have my phone unholstered, ready to shoot any fragments of typographic history that cross my path.

On streets constantly a-heave with tourists, this can be a particularly entertaining pastime. With a muttered “ooh that’s nice”, I’ll stop and point my camera at an awkwardly-located bit of type clinging to the side of a building. Immediately, the effects of crowd psychology will kick in around me. Looking up at something invariably makes others else look up, in case they’re missing something worth looking up at. This contagious gaze is only exacerbated by me point-and-clicking whatever it is up there. What has he found? It must be wonderful! Maybe a medieval thingamajig, or one of those Elizabethan somethingorothers!

But no, it’s just a funny-looking comma. Or an infuriatingly upside-down H. Or something large and unpronounceable branded onto the side of a trendily repurposed shipping container. Or a meticulously hand-painted and uncanny approximation of something that may have once been Futura. Or BANK hewn proudly into the brickwork above the door of a coffee shop. Or one of a thousand wonky house-numbers. So many words and numbers taken for granted by residents and visitors alike.

(Not all of it is ignored. York’s most famous, and questionably repainted, ghost-sign even has its own merchandise. Nightly Bile Beans Keep You Healthy Bright-Eyed & Slim … on a t-shirt. Everything here is ripe for tourism.)

It’s the really old, unloved finds – those pieces of type that have somehow survived years of urban rearrangement and renewal – that are the most interesting. And it’s not their age as such, rather the effect time has had upon them. Faded lettering emphasised by an outline of rust; edges and angles deformed by a century of repainting; characters eroded by the miniature desire paths of fingers traced over them again and again; logos colliding in the sedimentary layers of wheat-pasted gig posters. This is more like geology than typography.

It’s a constantly surprising pastime. I’ve always been conscious of the type out there, but only in passing moments, observations here and there. There’s a difference between noticing something and actively looking for it.

I was expecting to take a few snaps of some nice old letters, but it’s become more than that. The concerted effort of hunting has opened my eyes to appreciate how all of these stray moments of type co-exist, function and contribute to the vernacular identity of the city. The photographs I bring home are souvenirs of a renewed fascination with history, with the city, with design.

Written for Creative Review