Growing up in the shopping mall sprawl of the American Southwest the sight of a sun baked abandoned storefront is not unfamiliar to me. Large chains going the way of the dinosaurs, tv showroom floors lay empty, signs leaving stains on the concrete where they were once displayed with pride. Same goes for tinier retailers, Amazon slowly creeping in on every market, until inevitable monopoly turns the classic window display into a tepid yellow locker.
It’s strange that people will abandon their neighbor in exchange for personal convenience. In John Lehr’s, “The Island Position” we examine the last-ditch efforts of struggling retailers as they attempt to entice the world from their windows in hopes of weathering the storm of late capitalism.
When faced with Lehr’s images I’m immediately reminded of Eugene Atget’s Paris storefront photographs. In a way they act as a mirror to one another but remain equally relevant to their time periods. Lehr’s images bright and colorful, Atget’s whimsical black and white. The beginning of a potentially apocalyptic now and the dawning of surrealism.
Photographed almost a century apart. Both acting as commentary on the commerce of their time.
The Island position also reminds me of another MACK book, Paul Graham’s, “Does Yellow Run Forever” which shows a string of cash for gold stores, rainbows, and portraits in order to suggest a mythos or the idea of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, reinforcing the concept of money as sanctuary. Strangely, Lehr attempts to show the humanity of his found window fronts completely void of any literal representation of the human element. There are no people in this book, just the idea of exchange, hand drawn pleas for pennies and endless suggestions of a fallen empire. A constant reminder that our infrastructure will outlast us.
This leads me to believe there is a spiritual questioning here. If there is no one around to worship god, does god even exist? People have often described shopping as a spiritual experience – the peculiar late capitalist appellation “retail therapy.” What happens when there is nowhere left to buy? What happens to that ritual? What happens to the followers of the almighty dollar, euro, pound, yen, peso? While it’s hard to imagine a world without going to the store, it doesn’t seem far from reality.
Typologies often leave me eager for statistics. I want to see the numbers, the geographical data, the information that can help me decode where these spaces of desperation are and where they will no longer be. While Lehr’s book feels heavy handed at times, it’s impossible to ignore the gravity of the subject matter contained within. The images are beautiful talismans of tragedy, puzzle pieces intrinsic to comprehending the collapse of American small retail, candy colored faded dreams, a potential destiny for many.
Lehr’s book isn’t a revelation in the world of photography, he’s not telling us something we don’t already know about the medium, or pushing us to places we never thought we’d go.
Rather, he’s showing us something we’ve likely become desensitized to. The constant collapse taking place around us as we watch the concrete turn to rubble and the tumbleweeds roll in.
The Island Position is an important document that serves as a reminder of where we are, where we once were, and where we are going. Worth a look regardless of one’s interest in the medium.
website: John Lehr
review by: Christian Michael Filardo
copyright © John Lehr and PHROOM, all rights reserved