James bought the photos but I hadn’t seen them until we collected them in London. We took them to the café on the ground floor of the Royal Academy. The lighting is poor and the couple at the next table were discreetly trying to see what we were looking at: cellophane packs of photos, unmistakably early colour, with the rounded corners of family snapshot albums. They were also unmistakably American. Unmistakably New York. The pictures were printed at a time when mass market colour photo reproduction was so new that developing one roll of film cost the equivalent of an average week’s wages and the film had to be sent away to a lab to be processed.
They are across-the-street shots of general stores, liquor stores, butchers, pharmacies, cinemas. There are a few chains, like Dilbert Brothers, but mostly they are independent businesses. None, so far as we know, still operate today, although some of the buildings still stand.
There are 57 photographs, no duplicates, though in some cases there are multiple shots of the same store. Laid out on the floor at the back of our shop, I walked away from them and back again, time and again, trying to trick them into giving up their story. This was an expensive project, but the set up for the photos is almost matter-of-fact. Parked cars obscure parts of some photos, passers-by, or their reflections, are captured hurrying past. They were not taken by someone concerned with flawless composition or even deliberately trying for a reportage style. They record information, nothing more. Window displays, cinema foyer, clothing displays. You can make out the sign for the dentist on the first floor of one shop, and the figure of a man hunched over a restaurant counter in another.
I can’t help feeling it’s a portfolio concerning metal. The post-war transition to mass production. Aluminium. Aluminium frames around glass store windows and doors. It documents a time where main streets were dominated not by chains of shops or mini-hypermarkets but by small, specialist, often family-run stores.
Laid out together, a narrative of sorts builds. Like Twentysix Gasoline Stations, the photos offer no commentary, they simply present themselves- with the barest details of name and location- and eventually add up to more than the sum of their parts. That’s why we used the format of Twentysix Gasoline Stations- they fit perfectly. We didn’t even change the size of the images.
The edition is limited to 75 copies and will be launched at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair in April.