Probably to the surprise of no one living in Santa Barbara, this area is favored with a plethora of multi-career, multitalented, and inventive people. Among these is Bill Bolton, whose professions have included that of practicing veterinarian, inventor, designer, and now writer. His recently published book — a photo-essay of sorts — is In Search of Piétons.
In Search of Piétons (piéton is French for pedestrian) began life when Bolton lived in Paris for two years in the early 1990s. He spent many hours strolling about his neighborhood — he describes himself as a flâneur, a “stroller” in its best sense — and in Tours and Montreuil, among other French cities, taking note of various things that struck his interest. Street-crossing signs were, naturally, something he found everywhere, and being the kind of person who can’t help but observe the details in his environment, Bolton’s curiosity was piqued by the variety of electronic street-crossing signs he encountered. It turns out the French have more than one way of letting pedestrians know when to “walk” and when to “stop.”
What inspired you to turn your observations of pedestrian crosswalk signs into a sort of research project? I always observe things. I’m curious, and when I realized, in my walks during those two years in France, that not all pedestrian crossing signs were alike, I thought, “This is interesting, I wonder if there are more than a couple of different ones?” In the end, I found two dozen. I took my camera with me and started to photograph the different signs. Since cameras were analog then, not digital, I’d have to take several different exposures, send the film to the lab, and wait about 10 days to see the results, and sometimes I’d have to go back and take the pictures again.
What was involved in photographing the rather unusual subject of street signs? I first had to clean off the signals to get a clear photo — they had dirt and leaves and things on them. So here’s this guy with cleaning materials and a ladder; I spent easily a half hour at each signal, and that would draw a crowd, and sometimes the police would be circling. They didn’t stop, just circled around. When passersby asked questions, I made it sound like a secret mission.
Most of the signs are simply schematic figures of humans, vaguely male. But at least one seems to be fully dressed, in outline. The one you’ve named “Victor” is wearing what appears to be a suit and a pork-pie hat. I named each photograph more recently, when I started to really put the book together and market it. I had it in my mind then that I had seen a sign somewhere that was a Man with a Hat. That kept niggling at me, and finally I found one, Image 12, and named it after my favorite author, Victor Hugo.
Your book includes not only the street names and cities where you took each photo but also QR bar codes that lead to a Google map, pinpointing the exact spot where you took each photograph. What did you have in mind with that? I wanted to designate where the photos were taken, the street, and city name. Of course these photos were taken 23 years ago. So being able to actually locate these things adds to the validity of the project. Of course, some changes have occurred since then. For instance, with No. 12, Victor, the brasserie in Montreuil where I was when I saw him is still there. But they took the street-crossing sign down. A lot of streets have been changed into roundabouts, so the signs aren’t needed anymore.
It’s getting a little easier [to roam and see the world] with the new urbanism; there are more footpaths, smaller confined buildings, maybe fewer cars. Getting people out and walking about is a good thing, something I want to encourage. Be a flâneur. I love that word. It describes me perfectly.
Bill Bolton’s book, In Search of Piétons, is available on amazon.com.