Zoe Leonard photographs New York City shopfronts, often after hours. Sometimes in colour; sometimes black and white. When the stores are closed and the security grilles are down, more often than not she pictures them square-on from chest height (she uses an old Rolleiflex). On these occasions her photographs depict the shop’s sign, the invariably graffitied metal shutters, and not a lot more. Pedestrians not allowed.

© Zoe Leonard

Meat’n’More
Analogue, 1998-2007
Courtesy of the artist and Tracy Williams, Ltd, NY

When the shops and the shutters are open, Leonard tends to picture them from a slightly oblique angle, suggesting that frontality is abandoned only as a means to minimize the illegibility and interference caused by reflections in the windows. A silhouette or a truncated torso sometimes suggests life within.

In the main the photographs come from areas around New York’s Lower East Side and Brooklyn, where the stores display what Leonard describes as a “layered, frayed and quirky beauty”. Many of them are, let’s face it, on the way out. And, judging by the faded signs and destitute exteriors, many others have already gone. When Leonard focuses on a detail, she frequently does so to ironic or dispirited effect: a stained and filthy sellotaped notice promises “Meats Meats Meats, fresh every day”; another, “Every Item Drastically Reduced”; or, “Must Sell All – Make Offer.”

The pictures of New York’s disappearing local shops make up the bulk of Analogue; the remainder are more recent photographs of shops and markets from as far afield as Mexico City, Kampala and Warsaw.

Perhaps the New York frames appear the most convincing because it is home turf, a landscape she describes as “a world in which I feel a sense of intense connection and simultaneously a growing alienation.” In a sense that alienation is expressed in the format of the photographs themselves – shot on film using a vintage camera and printed so as to reveal the film markings around the borders of the images. (Fuji for the colour; Kodak for black and white). The implication is that the analogical nature of chemical photography – doomed presumably to obsolescence – parallels the homespun character of the shops, on borrowed time in an age of gentrification, multinationals, redevelopment and a global economy.

A concluding essay composed entirely of excerpts and quotations from other authors (addressing, in the main, the themes of photography and urban experience) is as steeped in history as the pictures. Tellingly, Leonard cites a definition of documentary images from the Fifth International Congress of Photography of 1910, “the beauty of the photograph is secondary here, it is enough that the image be very clear, full of detail and carefully treated so as to resist for as long as possible the ravages of time”.

And she quotes Nadar on the subject of Haussmann’s Paris, “They have destroyed everything, even memory”. It seems the transformation of the capital of the nineteenth century has a particular resonance today. Leonard also includes a passage written by a special committee of the Commission Municipale, charged in 1898 with documenting the old, disappearing Paris and with it “in a word, everything across the city that can conjure up the memory of the past or call to mind vanished epochs.”

Taken together, the comments on documentary work and the observations about Haussmann’s Paris could furnish a mission statement for Leonard – to conjure the memory of the past while resisting, for a while anyway, the ravages of time.