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Great American Billboards: 100 Years of History by the Side of the Road
By Fred E. Basten (Ten Speed Press, $20)

"Neolithic cave paintings in Spain and France bear the unmistakable images of animals standing, running, alone or in herds. What was the message? Were they a warning to alert early humans to the dangers lurking outside, or an announcement of the riches waiting beyond the cave walls?"

So begins the introduction to Fred Basten's illustrated history Great American Billboards. Basten's brief but illuminative opening essay traces the development of the form from its prehistoric roots to its use as a propaganda tool by the ancient Greeks to its explosion in the late 1800s, which birthed the modern-day billboard industry. The rest of the book, however, is dedicated specifically to the art (and frequently, the artifice) of American billboards of the past 100 years.

The nearly 200 sumptuous images here document a collection curated by the late Joe Blackstock and taken from the archives of the United States' first and most prominent billboard company, Foster and Kleiser (whose current incarnation is outdoor advertising monolith Clear Channel Outdoor). Divided into chapters covering roughly 10-year increments, this fascinating book follows the art form through the Victorian era, the two World Wars, the cold-war boom years, and to the increasingly postmodern billboards of today.

Focusing on both commercial and political advertising, the book is a testimony to both the sublime and the ridiculous, including everything from a somber black-and-white image marking the assassination of John F. Kennedy to a gaudy ad trumpeting a Liberace stage show. It's strange to think that a type of mass advertising could serve as such an illuminating guide to a country, its culture, and its people, but the images here bear witness to that history while offering a fun-house-mirror reflection of us and of our dreams.

Basten, who's written and edited numerous books documenting the art of Hollywood and the architecture of Los Angeles, has a gift for choosing the most vivid examples, but his captions and annotations place the images in their broader context. Moreover, you come to understand the billboard's unmistakable influence not just on pop art and modern photography but also on a shared understanding of our national identity.

-- Bob Bozorgmehr