A context for Pablo Lopez Luz’s Baja Moda

Pablo Lopez Luz, Baja Moda, Editorial RM, 2021

Pablo López Luz. Baja Moda

essay by David Campany

45.00 Binding: Hardcover Pages: 98 Size: 29 x 31cm Language: Bilingual (ENG-SPA) ISBN: 978-84-17975-88-3 Publication year: 2021

A Context for Pablo Lopez Luz’s Baja Moda

David Campany

The history of photography is blessed with an abundance of imagery of store fronts. Some of these have been produced by the stores and store companies themselves, as records or promotion, but most have been the work of independent photographers of one kind or another, encountering store fronts as part of the rich and shifting urban fabric. At a certain point, around the end of the 19thcentury, it seems the store front struck a number of photographers and cultural commentators as being an important symbol of modern culture. The store front is, in essence, capitalism on display in a form that is concentrated, seductive, assertive, and unavoidable. The wandering photographer or writer encounters the store front, stands before it, stares through the glass at the theatrical arrangements of objects – the commodity’s dreamworld – and contemplates its meaning.

The emblematic figure here is Eugène Atget, the Frenchman who photographed not the modern Paris that was emerging around him, but the endangered and disappearing Paris. Between 1900 and his death in 1927, the store font was a recurring motif in his work. Independent shopkeepers, with their creative but pragmatic window displays, were being replaced by the department stores and chain stores, with their professional window-dressers and market-tested display techniques. The independent stores were looking increasingly out of date. And yet, they were endearing, strange and melancholic. There was also a latent politics here too, deep within what the cultural critic Walter Benjamin called “the revolutionary energies” of the “outmoded”. The phrase is from his remarkable essay ‘Surrealism: the Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia’ (1929). He was summoning the ghost of Charles Baudelaire who, eighty years earlier, had intuited that in modern capitalism it is the objects and practices that are becoming obsolete that tell us the most revealing stories, if only we were able to decipher them.  Literature and photography would be the means to do that.

The year after Atget died, the surrealist writer André Breton published Nadja. Although a contemporary story, much of it takes place in older locales steeped in the past. The novel contains photographs, many of which showed store fronts (shot by Jacques-André Boiffard). The dreamlike story drifts through a city in transition, as the narrator himself drifts through psychological transitions in his own life. The fetishistic desirability of commodities displayed behind glass adds to the feeling of mental dislocation. Three years after Nadja, Manuel Alvarez Bravo made Parábola óptica, his delirious reversed photograph of the glass front of an optometrist’s window in Mexico City. From here on, across the ensuing century, the photographers attuning to the everyday world around them were never far from store fronts. Put together, their images are an unofficial record of everything from local tastes to global trade.

In October 1958, the American photographer and writer Walker Evans published a spirited defence and poetic celebration of independent shop display. Titled ‘The Pitch Direct,’ it was produced for Fortune, a magazine dedicated not to small scale commerce but to the rise of big business and corporate industry. Although a member of the magazine’s staff, Evans was constantly out of step with its editorial ethos. Pricking the conscience of the readers, he produced photo-essays that celebrated all things endangered by the inhuman forces of progress. Even Evans’s titles were revealing. ‘Is The Market Right?’ ‘People and Places in Trouble’. ‘Vintage Office Furniture’. ‘Before They Disappear’. ‘The Last of Railroad Steam’. ‘The Auto Junkyard’. ‘When “Downtown” Was a Beautiful Mess’. His photo-essays clung to the magazine pages just as their subject matter held out against a tide of modernization. ‘The Pitch Direct’ recalls Atget and Benjamin, but Evans’s striking use of color anticipated the work of a later generation of photographers, notably Stephen Shore and William Eggleston in the USA, and Luigi Ghirri and Guido Guidi in Italy, all of whom were drawn to storefronts.

The very latest commodities and designs are almost impossible to contemplate meaningfully. Photographs of them tend to look like dumb celebrations or advertisements. As Evans noted elsewhere, “Design just a little dated will interest any artist. Design current is always terrible. Anyone who has tried to find a good contemporary lamp or clock will know what I mean.’[i] He was not dismissing the aesthetic of any era, merely noting that ‘not-newness’ is what often permits artistic access and a deeper understanding of the forces that bring commodities into being and permit them to disappear when consumed.

In his text introductory text for ‘The Pitch Direct’, Evans wrote:

A man needn’t travel to the Andes, strapped to his colour camera, to relish the site of outdoor markets. There are American sidewalks, like these in New York, that spill with them. They can look and smell much like marketplaces anywhere, from Naples to Tehuantepec, to Nairobi.

No doubt that little geographic itinerary was intended to evoke local commerce around the world for an insular readership in the United States, but in the context of the work of Pablo Lopez Luz, the mention of the Andes and Tehuantepec (the pre-Spanish city in southern Mexico) is a striking coincidence. Lopez Luz’s Baja Moda is a study of independent store fronts and shoe shops across Latin America that are holding out with various degrees of success against the anomie of globalised retail.  Many of the giant corporations are North American, but what they represent has little sense of region at all. They promote a generalised aesthetic of international mass consumption, with the very least possible concessions to locality.

What interests Lopez Luz is the fragile persistence of independent stores and their modes of display. Moreover, his photographs share with the great lineage of store front photography a gentle, everyday surrealism of the absent body. Shoes without feet. Gloves without hands. Hats without heads. Shirts without torsos. But these store fronts and their displays also evoke the lived bodies of their owners. They are a little ragged, perhaps not as sleek or as up-to-date as they once were, but they are stubbornly providing a dwindling income. It is natural for independent stores to age with their owners and their clientele.

I am writing these words in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, not so far from where Evans shot ‘The Pitch Direct’. The area is undergoing intense gentrification but across my street there is a tailor’s store and an independent shoe shop. The displays are a little gauche. Velvet. Mirrors. Shirts and shoes hanging from very visible wires.  It is all somewhat reminiscent of old magician’s props. Thin layers of dust have gathered on the shoulders of jackets and the tips of shoes. Commodities, as Karl Marx famously noted, are meant to look pristine and spontaneous, as if they had leapt into this world without origin or labor. Fading shop displays betray their products, but in doing so they remain human. I can also see Starbucks, H&M and L’Occitane, brands whose pristine and banal stores are the same the world over.

Evans continues:

This stay-at-home tourist, if his eye is properly and purely to be served, should approach the street fair without any reasonable intention, such as that of actually buying something.

It is a remark that cuts both ways. Evans wants these little stores to survive against all the odds, but in order to really understand them, the observer-photographer must resist making a purchase; must stand at the threshold and keep a distance; must be content with being a ‘window shopper’. Of course, a photograph permits us to look at a storefront without the obligation to buy any of the things we see. It permits us to look without guilt. It also permits future generations to look. These shops may not survive far into the future, and a photograph might be the only trace they leave behind. It won’t just be the displays that disappear but the very architecture of the stores. The glass and steel. The marble and wood. The neon lights and contoured concrete.  Every epoch has its own specific way of presenting and representing itself, and when it is gone, it is gone. If we are lucky there will be photographs. And we can thank Pablo Lopez Luz for that.









[i] Walker Evans, ‘Collector’s Items’, Mademoiselle, May 1963.


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