New York

Jim Dow

Janet Borden, Inc.

What taxonomical photography has in common with lepidopterology, poisonfrog collecting, and train spotting is that it, too, can be a means of nurturing an idiosyncratic obsession. It combines the scientism of typological investigation with the more or less obvious charm of an eccentric interest cultivated over time.

Jim Dow’s recent photographic series of British storefronts, “Corner Shops of Britain,” 1983–93, offers a glimpse into this kind of obsession nurtured over a decade. Forty 8-by-10 color contact prints depict the façades of family-run businesses, once keystones in the social and architectural fabric of the high street. Victims less of the recession than of suburbanization—of the one-stop park-and-shop megastore—they have been disappearing at a rate of over 3,000 per annum. Here, as with the grain silos, mine shafts, and other monuments to the demise of industry documented by the Bechers, the drive-in movie screens of Hiroshi Sugimoto, or even the newsstands of Moyra Davey, rarity is a measure of impending extinction. Records of a way of life, institutions such as Bert’s Pie & Mash. Peckham, London, 1993–95, James Smith’s Stick Shop, 1985–95, or Baldwin’s Homeopathic Chemist, 1993–95, are captured in the period between the end of a tradition and its eventual resurrection in the form of the old curiosity shop, where the purchase of memory is made possible by the homogenizing force of the ECU.

Whereas most early photography in this genre—of the sort first acknowledged in 1975 with the “New Topographics” exhibition at George Eastman House (which included work by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Lewis Baltz, Nicholas Nixon, and Frank Gohlke)—is focused on the skillful elimination of the anthropological, Dow, like his mentor Frank Gohlke, is preoccupied with its orchestration. Although Dow’s small theaters of commerce are generally unpeopled, their windows are both vitrines (they still bear the mahogany and glass stamp of their Victorian museological origins) and stages decorated for esthetic pleasure, convenience, and transactional ease. A ware of the dangers of depicting people as symbols of what they do, Dow pictures not the proprietor but the assemblage, composition, and palette of elements that once formed and were passed down from one generation to another of proprietors. A Covent Garden tailor’s window is a diorama of gravitas, the gray pants and immaculately tailored jackets balancing appeals to vanity with austerity and deference to tradition. These are windows inviting the pleasures of scrutiny and what the French appropriately term lèche-vitrine. In The Facade of Chapman’s Hardware, 1993–95, stacked outside in a configuration worthy of Tony Cragg’s sculpture, are horizontal or vertical tiers of cat litter bags, of multipurpose and ericaceous composts, of watering cans, dustbins, and brooms.

If taxonomical photography often seems most at home in book form—consider Edward Ruscha’s Twenty Six Gasoline Stations, 1963, Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, 1968, and Thirty Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles, 1967—its most appropriate subject might well be the storefront, which serves as both lens of inspection and display window. In Dow’s series, the play of inside and outside, of image as window and window as image, occurs across multiple planes of representation. Dow makes no particular claims to documentary veracity; the luminous glow of these works is as much a product of manipulated light and printing as of the British fug from which they emerge. And like the stores themselves, these are modest photographs, artfully composed and precise in their attention to detail. Monuments to the transience of the rituals and esthetics of consumption, they are revealed as empty spaces animated only by the intensity of our gaze.

Neville Wakefield