Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York

07/20/2009 4:00 AM |

Gingko Press
Available Now
Related exhibit on view at Click through August 30.

Store Front is a visually compelling tome filled with photographs of stores that have maintained the I’ve-been-on-this-corner-since-your-ancestors-came-over-from-the-old-country look. Photographers Karla and James Murray intentionally selected places that “look like they’ve been around forever” — though, ironically, the stores may only exist forever in photographic form, since they’re becoming ephemera so quickly. Organized by borough and further subdivided by neighborhood, the book encyclopedically chronicles the shops that have (or had) outlasted the onslaught of aesthetic and commercial homogeneity.

The project, while evoking all kinds of politicized issues about commerce, is ultimately about art. Always interested in fonts, it was in scavenging the city for graffiti that led the Murrays to Storefront. Returning multiple times to a particular neighborhood, the couple noticed how sharp the local turnover was between one trip and the next. Without photography, these marginalized subjects would have faded into the ether, unremembered. It became their quest to counter the vanishing of old-world New York.

Their archival project, carried out with near-exhaustive zeal, is in the vein of Bernd and Hilla Becher (a German couple who photographed neglected industrial architecture from a firmly objective point of view), with an August Sander-level scope. The Murrays shot with a traditional 35mm manual camera, and the old-school apparatus serves as an apt mirror of the time-honored authenticity of the subjects. The un-manipulated approach wholly preserves the vintage aesthetic of the stores.

The extinction list for small businesses is swiftly growing as the contemporary city shifts. A certain manic pursuit was necessary to archeologically capture these venues before they were lost in the constant palimpsest that is New York. The Murrays note in their introduction that a third (a third!) of the businesses photographed no longer exist, which imbues the photos with a mournful feeling.

Small-scale business survival is rooted in endurance, with signs often making proud declarations of longevity (Yonah Shimmel Knish Bakery, original since 1910; Russo’s Fresh Mozzarella & Pasta, since 1908). Embedded in these dates is a confirmation of successfully maintained tradition that is tried and true and unflappable in the face of passing trends. These long-standing guys are the real New Yorkers, with street cred as caked into their reputation as the stains into their decades-old signs. It is they who have witnessed gentrification firsthand — not just of populace, but of branding, of visual grammar. They have refused to wither in the face of trademark. The signs’ missing letters, the rusted corners — they are a badge of individuality. Their ramshackle aesthetic dates them as much as their actual histories, and proudly so.