Documenting Disappearing London
I pass these stores every day. I pass hundreds every week, maybe thousands each month. It’s rare that I look for longer than I need. But Emily Webber sees them.
Based in Hackney, Emily shoots images of the urban furniture of 21st-century London. Her photos show chicken shops and nail bars; laundromats, kebab shops, hairdressers, cab offices, newsagents, and thrift stores all feature. In an increasingly chainified city, she zeroes in on the beauty and originality of the garish and the mundane. On London Shop Fronts, she has published over 1,200 images so far, running one every morning for almost four years.
We meet in the Clapton Hart— a cavernous Victorian pub with its own 2012-remodeled facade — to discuss why she does it.
The obvious question is: Why? How and why did you get started photographing London’s storefronts?
It began with an interest in signage, in the design and typography. Then at some point I stepped back and started shooting the whole shopfront. I found that the image fit the frame perfectly. That was 2004, when I shot an initial set of images. I had been looking for somewhere to share them, and in 2008 started London Shop Fronts. I’ve continued to shoot and publish one image a day for four years, which I guess is slightly mental.
You don’t talk to the store owners at all. So, what are the photos about?
It’s a documentary, a collection of stuff that’s about now. Because you never really own a building. Your name is on the deeds, but the building outlives you, it persists. I aim to capture it at one moment in time, and the narrow remit of my collection allows me to explore what’s going on in more detail.
What are the criteria for a store to qualify?
I don’t do bland chains. I choose shops that look like they have a story to tell. I look for clues — worn signage or a sign that is half written-over, a tile design, any mark of individuality, basically. For example, I like the ridiculous layeredness of a shop near where I live that does hair, nails, and occasionally sells fabric softener. On the other hand, I wouldn’t do a picture of a nice new coffee shop. It wouldn’t look lived-in enough. And I don’t have people in my photos. They distract. If there’s a person in the frame, that’s what you’ll look at.
You don’t make any money from this, right?
There’s no image manipulation here: no filters, no HDR. These are very “straight” images. Why?
Actually, I do use Photoshop. To level an image, or to remove a face. But, yes, these are straight pictures. Instagram and similar services offer up a rose-tinted view of the world. This is a documentary project.
What cameras have you used?
I’ve used a few cameras on the project, but tend to go for something compact that I can throw in my handbag and always have with me. Most of my photos are with the Panasonic Lumix DMC LX3, which is a great small camera. More recently I’ve been using a Sony Nex-5 with a zoom lens. It’s nice to be able to zoom and focus with the lens when I’m shooting across wider roads.
There are others around the world who do what you do. Are these people that you have inspired, or have they found their own way to this?
Both, I think. I had an email from LA that went something like, “I like what you’re doing in London, and would you mind if I did something similar in my area?” Of course, I was happy to agree: Aside from one holiday project that I called Lombok Shop Fronts, this has always been about my city. That email spawned LA Facades. I think I also helped to inspire Seoul Shop Fronts, Shop Fronts of Sheffield, and a couple more. But there’s quite a global shopfronts community: Jim and Karla Murray in New York, Kevin Steele in Queen West, a famous set taken by Alan Dein in London’s East End in 1988 , and a few others.
When will you stop?
I’m not sure. The more images I collect, the more I see the interconnections. I have what might be the biggest collection of shopfront photos in the world, and a library that no one will be able to re-create, because some of these places have disappeared already. In my mind, I had a plan to stop at some point and make a book. But now I don’t want to, even though finding the time to head out on photography trips away from my part of London is getting harder. It’s almost like I can’t stop it, because it’s been going on so long.
— Donald Strachan
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