The unnerving detritus of what was, Jane Westaway

The Shops
Steve Braunias and Peter Black (photographer)
Luncheon Sausage Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780908689941

Once upon a time, I met people who owned a shop. I was young and impressionable and, on my first visit, was dazzled by a window display of ladies’ and gents’ watches, silverware and jewellery. The door pinged when you pushed it. Once inside, glass shelves and counters gleamed with promise, and the watchmaker’s wife stood behind the counter. It was a small place in a small town, but I was thrilled, not so much by what these people were offering for sale, as by the concept of shop-keeping itself.

The watchmaker’s wife, who also did the accounts, invited me further in. What she called the office lay immediately behind the retail space, and it was a cramped, cluttered, gloomy cupboard. Behind that, the watchmaker’s workbench, also cramped and cluttered. And then there was “out the back” – an ugly, uncared-for little yard, piled with disintegrating cartons, milk bottles, overflowing dustbins and other detritus. I wished I hadn’t been taken behind the scenes.

Years later – well before the rise of the mall and the internet – these two sold up and retired. Others were not so far-sighted. They stood their ground as ma-and-pa outlets went into terminal decline. It’s this decline that is the subject of The Shops, featuring Peter Black’s images and an essay by Steve Braunias. Worth noting, too, that Braunias’s Luncheon Sausage Books is also the publisher, and has produced a beautifully designed volume.

Maurice Gee has written of the potency of his “special nouns” – creek and kitchen – and the nostalgic and imaginative power they exert over him. The shops, for most of us, exert the same power, and Black and Braunias have each followed their own path into and around their topic. The essay makes no reference to the images. And that comes as a welcome relief from the usual artspeak trudge in which the writer pays obeisance to the accompanying images while also working hard to impress the reader with their own intellectual insights. It’s good to be left alone to make what you will of the photographs.

Braunias’s essay, “Family Shopping”, is a poignant memoir that shuns the intellectual. It’s prompted by his childhood, and what the shops – especially the back of them – meant to him. It opens with his father’s farewell gift of five dollars, when the young Braunias was 10 or 11. This was the most money he had ever had and, as his father backed down the drive for the last time, he was imagining spending it: “I could go to the best show in town, the Central Parade shops, and spend up large. He should have left more often.” At one point, he says it is absurd to indulge in faux nostalgia, but his memoir reeks of it.

Black’s images, on the other hand, do not. He made his considerable reputation on the strength of candid (but don’t read cute) black-and-white street photography. His images are a compelling – sometimes unnerving – amalgam of the familiar and the strange. Most of this work is peopled (though certainly not portraiture). On the face of it, The Shops comes as a stark contrast.

It’s in colour. And it’s almost entirely unpeopled. The only sign of human life in these vacated images is a man slipping into the side door of a take-away, beside the bins. Almost as if he shouldn’t have been outside in the first place.

Old-fashioned font and/or handwritten signage – “Closed”, “Haircuts”; “Video’s [sic] $10 each.”; “SEAN’S M ENSWEAR”; “Snarler Parler” – compete with graffiti, bird droppings and over-optimistic parking lots. Shop windows are as empty and abandoned as “out the back”, or display dusty goods no one is likely to buy. There are bins and dirt, struggling plant life, dilapidation and emptiness.

It would be tempting to see all this as sad, but for Black’s glorious use of colour. It rhymes and chimes from one page to the next, and completely lifts these images and their maker beyond the sphere of “sociologist with a camera”. It takes us into another dimension, one less easy to pigeonhole, one that says life is never as simple as ugly/pretty. Although the images underline the brutality of much of this country’s built environment, there is beauty. The effect is of poetry seeping into the banal, refusing to be ignored. And, again, it’s a little unnerving.

In front of the Wanganui Postie lies a neglected stretch of land delicately overgrown with tall weeds and grasses. The rusted front of Petone’s Peaches and Cream adult megastore is a luscious pink and blue. The nearest Black comes to conventional prettiness is the lushly unkempt garden of what was once a café or bar. Fennel and geranium grow higher than the tables and chairs.

Just this evening, a TVNZ newsreader wrapped up a story on the inventors of the digital camera by coyly referring to “life’s little moments”. This isn’t a huge conceptual stretch from Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moments”, which he believed to be the essence of photography. Declines, though, don’t arrive in this manner. There is a timelessness in Black’s images that makes the viewer want to return again and again, as if trying to solve the mystery of time itself.

Jane Westaway is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 

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