Collecting Words

A photo book of very short visual stories told by graffiti, signs and other text found outside

There’s something about text found outside of screens and pages, in the “wild,” that grabs our attention. It’s the way they make a declaration in the public realm, trying to join our personal conversations. For the past five years—starting around the time that Instagram launched—Boulder-based art director Brian Fouhy has been “collecting words,” whether it’s graffiti or signage for Pittsburgh’s “#1 Exotic Club” Blush.

“Back then I feel IG had a bit more of an photography/art skew and I happened to discover people to follow who were photographing a lot of signage and things like that,” he notes on starting his project. “I began to notice words and signage more which led to starting #collectingwords as a place to catalog what I found.” He snaps the photos on his iPhone, editing them using the VSCO and Instagram editing apps. Then, they’re posted to Instagram or Tumblr. After living online for some time, “Collecting Words” has become a book of “very short” visual stories, where photos have been grouped by titles like “It wouldn’t flush” and “Future fears.” One, called “Revelation,” tells a story in a triptych: in order, the three photos read “I’m not a boy / I’m a swan / I’m gorgeous inside.” Says Fouhy, “It was a bit in the realm of the refrigerator magnet poetry.”

Fouhy thinks he has over 500 photos in total at the moment and what ties the shots of tattoo stores, restaurants, beauty salons, T-shirts together is his perspective. “The words that most catch my eye, or that I most enjoy discovering are the signs, graffiti, words in scenarios that are positioned, whether intentional or not, in a way that they can take on a greater context or when I can frame them in a way to give them a greater context,” says Fouhy. One particularly poignant example is his shot of FIND Home Furnishings in Brooklyn, by the Gowanus Canal. With the city skyline in the back, the zoomed out photo makes viewers hunt for the word itself. “I also really enjoy when I come across words that I never expected to find,” says Fouhy, giving the example of the photo, above left. “I imagined someone sitting or laying on these steps scrawling the words ‘I almost fell asleep here’ before coming to and picking themselves up to move on.”

“The transition from online to print came about once I had amassed a substantial library of words—maybe two or so years ago—and started to think about creating stories from my collection,” says Fouhy. “The physical form of a book felt like a more appropriate, or in a way, truer place for the stories to live than the online/digital space.” Fouhy actually came across New Heroes & Pioneers through our story on their launch last year; the Malmö-based art book publisher’s mission of working with emerging and lesser-known artists stuck out to Fouhy. He pitched the idea for “Collecting Words” and it soon became a reality. “They have been an awesome partner to have,” he says.

At the back of the book, an index details when and where every photo was taken—represented heavily are Pittsburgh, Brooklyn and Boulder, plus a few far-reaching locales like Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark. These visual stories instill a new motivation to keep your head up, keep your eyes open and be present where you are. It’s harder than it sounds.

Collecting Words” is available for $25 from New Heroes & Pioneers.

Image of book by Cool Hunting; all other images courtesy of Brian Fouhy