Guest Blog: Pete Fij on the people photographing empty shops

When I originally wrote ‘Downsizing’ the idea was to use the language of HR departments laying people off in the context of the song of a romantic let-down.

“She had an audit of her life, and something had to go / Last in first out, well I guess I should have known / ‘It’s nothing personal’ she said, in the e-mail that was sent / You could say I was surplus to requirement.”

I wanted to make a video for the song, but had no budget & no camera, so I stumbled upon the idea of using images of empty shops as an extended visual metaphor for the theme of the song, and I was told by Dan Thompson of the Empty Shops Network of the wonders of Flickr, and I started sifting through the themed pages devoted to empty shops, contacting the various photographers to get permission, as well as putting a call out to fans from our Facebook page  who also contributed . I e-mailed about 50+ photographers, of whom around half came back agreeing to be involved. Fans from Germany complained that they had no empty shops to photograph, whilst those in Italy & tellingly America sent lots in. In the end I focused mainly (though not exclusively) on the UK shops to keep a coherent theme & feel. What I liked about the images was that despite these being just empty shells of once-inhabited shops, there was a real poignancy to them.

Some of the artists I contacted had made it their project to catalogue these pieces of urban decay. One of the first photographer’s I came across was Peter Bartlett . Of all the photos I saw of Peter’s, the image that immediately struck me was of Patricia’s hairdressers which I chose as the very last shot, as it was perhaps the most poignant of all the I sifted through in researching the film. Peter told me it was seeing Patricia’s that acted as the starting point for his photographic journey – it seemed fitting that his starting point was my ending.

P1050974I asked Peter about what had captured his imagination about this shop in particular & how it influenced him to embark on his project.

“The business had obviously been closed for a number of years and in addition to the peeling paintwork, old signage and shabby appearance, I was struck by the grubby net curtains and faded artificial flowers in the window. It was as though some major event had occurred in the life of the business or the proprietor that had caused trading to stop suddenly, leaving the premises in a sort of time-warp. A peep through the windows revealed that all the, now dated, equipment of a hairdressers was still in place, gathering dust.

This got me thinking about other shops that I knew that had obviously been empty long-term – in many instances for several years and pre-dating our recent economic woes. Why had the businesses ceased trading? What had the business once been? Why had the shop never been sold or let or re-opened as a new trade? In some instances, the faded signage gave an insight into what the business had once been, but in others, all the signs had been removed and all that the casual viewer could see were anonymous faded curtains, blinds or shutters.

I have been asked whether I researched the back-story to any of the shops. I did consider this, but decided that I preferred to simply present the images of these shops and allow the viewer to use his/her imagination and build their own story from the information in the picture. “

P1050981What Peter has to say about not having a back-story to the images is part of the appeal – I think it’s the fact that we let our imagination run with the story presented by the images that make them more interesting. Sometimes it’s not important to know everything – but let our minds do the fictional detective work for us. It was interesting to see in the comments posted on my Facebook page, how others were entering into the spirit, seeing reflections in the windows that I had missed, which seemed to add another layer to the narrative of the plot to each little tale.

Within my research, it quickly became apparent there was one photographer, called Leon Daley  , whose work I really wanted to include – not just because of the number of photos he had up on the subject but also because of the quality of his work, and several of the photographers I contacted also pointed me in his direction – one of them referring to him as “The King of the empty shop photo”. I have to admit when I finally got the message from Leon saying that he was willing to be involved a did a little whoop for joy as I knew the quality of the film had just jumped up several notches (in the end about 20% of the film uses his work).
I asked Leon what his inspiration for his mammoth task was;

“I am by nature a meanderer. My greatest joy is to wander the none-place areas of our towns and cities unaided by maps, prior knowledge or any preconceived idea of where I might go, or what I am looking for.”
Leon estimates he has photographed between 3-4000 empty shops since he started 8 years ago. I suggested that this level of commitment to his project was border-line addiction, though he saw it as
“more an obsessive interest. I like the idea of taking things beyond the level that most people would (or even care to). My intention is to record the façade and its environment in as unemotional, unsentimental and direct way as I can.”

P1050982To achieve this he keeps to a set of very strict self-imposed parameters – similar to Peter Bartlett – flat light, no people, straight perspective and controlled framing. I wondered if being confronted with this seemingly endless array of defunct businesses was depressing:

“No and Yes. To open a shop is a very aspirational thing to do. Nobody ever opened a shop with the intention of seeing it fail, so on a personal level a failed shop is always saddening, but all that is created will one day pass: lifestyles and habits change.

I’m more saddened by the hand wringing nostalgia one so often hears for the High Street: when it comes from people who do their shopping in Tesco’s. And irritated by the empty platitudes one hears from government and councils, as they voice their concern for the hard working independent shopkeeper, and then proceed to create an environment in which developers and multi nationals thrive, and the individual priced out, and what was once public space (The Street) become private property (The Mall).

One mystery that still remains unanswered to me is how come so many of these shut shops have posters for a visiting circus in the window? How do these posters get put up? Do contortionist midgets somehow manage to squeeze through the letterbox, sliding past the final demand bills & junk mail to blue-tac the posters up?

After spending hours and hours looking through empty abandoned shop after empty abandoned shop I must say I did start to find the whole thing a little depressing myself. It was then I stumbled on some images from Emily Webber who had a few great photographs of closed shops, but on looking into her portfolio of work I discovered she had a huge number more (well into the thousands) of shops that were still alive and well on her ongoing London Shop Front project . Of course these images of functioning businesses were outside of my downbeat remit for my film, so I stuck to some of the little gems of forgotten closed shops she had uncovered whilst criss-crossing the boroughs of London. However, after all these visual tales of failure there was something very joyful about her pictures of small businesses that are still going – and as an a bit of a font-addict myself they are bit of a wet dream in their own right as well.

“The project is a dedication to London and a documentation of the city. These are the backdrop to the everyday, but often overlooked. I started the collection in 2004 as an interest in capturing some of my favourite, but it has morphed into a bit of an obsession and a collection of photos of London in the early 21st century.”

Rather like Bill Murray in ‘Groundhog Day’ Emily’s work is a seemingly never-ending loop – and she has begun re-visting some of her old favourites to re-shoot them 5 years on, and you can see the daily growth of ‘the best of’ here.

“I choose shops that have a story to tell. I look for clues — worn signage or a sign that is half written-over, layers of paint, a tile design, any mark of individuality.”

I see the owners of a shop as the current caretakers, the building will outlive their involvement in it, each owner adds its own mark to the shop and I’m interested in shops that show that. Chains tend to remove most of this, so I find them less interesting.”

These three artists have shown a dedication to the task of constantly chronicling the urban environment around them. Whilst I spent a couple of weeks searching for my images on the internet from the comfort of my two-in-the-morning computer desk, their work is something that spans years, and looks like being an ongoing-project stretching out into the horizon. Leon Daley best describes the thrill of the hunt in the real world of capturing that one moment in time of a forgotten shop.

“I find pleasure in finding some long closed and boarded-up shop hidden down a litter strewn side street and taking a photograph that no one else may ever take.”

One person’s closed derelict eyesore, is another man’s truffles.

A guest post for the Empty Shops Network by musician Pete Fij. Currently recording as half of Pete Fij/ Terry Bickers, Pete is the former frontman of Adorable and has an interesting sideline collecting things he has found in books. The photos in this blog are all by Dan Thompson, who knows exactly how circuses get their posters into empty shops.

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