Film Photography: 'Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York City'

This post isn't about my photography directly, but it's still about film photography. I hope that you have heard about and already purchased James and Karla Murray's "Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York." But just in case you don't already have a well-worn copy of your own, I'm telling you that "Store Front" is probably the most important book about New York that's been released in the last 25 years. I always knew it was a great book (and full disclosure, I purchased the desk calendar version as well), but after Kate and I took a tour with James and Karla on Sunday, I feel that "Store Front" is more than a photo book.

James and Karla Outside of the Mars Bar (now closed obviously), East Village, Fuji Reala 100

Not only are James and Karla two of the nicest people you could meet, they are long-time residents of the East Village who understand and love the local landscape. Standing in front of these store fronts and listening to them talk about the owners/families behind them gave me an understanding of just how difficult independent store owners have had it in New York.

James and Karla didn't just photograph these store fronts, they took the time to get to know the owners behind the facades. You could feel it in their voices when they told the stories of these family businesses. They used familiar first names. They had arranged snacks for us (more than once during the three hour tour) and introduced our rather large group to the people behind the counter.

Karla Murray Outside of McSorley's Ale House, East Village, Fuji Reala 100

My burning question, the one that I've pondered aloud with Kate MULTIPLE times, is how on earth those two captured all of those store fronts without the constant interruption of cars and people. Wide angle lens? The photos don't show any corner distortion or barreling. Well, I asked and found out that they used composite images, which is not surprising in photography. What *is* surprising is that they shot the entire book on film. This was in the infancy of photoshop. There was no quick and easy stitching together of images. They took several shots, spent hours at each location, often returning to locations the next day worrying about consistency in both weather and lighting.

James mentioned that they used film for two reasons: first because digital was new when they began the project, but second because the character and grain of film represented these gorgeous store fronts in a way that digital never could.

It boggles my mind to think about the amount of work that they put into this book, but when I listened to the two of them talking about these businesses I totally understood. This wasn't just a book to them. They were documenting an important, but rapidly disappearing part of NYC. When they wrote the introduction for the book, a third of the businesses were gone. When the book was published, half had disappeared. I shudder to think about how many are gone today.

These three hours with James and Karla have totally reinforced my feelings about photography in a modern urban landscape - if you see something that you love, shoot it, record it immediately. Too many times I've passed on photographing something and then come back days later only to find that the landscape has changed. Things change fast here, but I would venture to bet that there are gems in every town and city of the world that will disappear in the next four to six weeks. As photographers, we can capture these things today. If you see something, photograph it. Document it now as best you can with whatever tools you have on hand. Next week it could be gone.

This tour was made possible by the Lower East Side History Project, which also does a Bowery History Tour that would appeal to many 'Store Front' readers.

For the tour I only had my Hasselblad on me, which isn't the ideal camera to get images of anything with a fast moving group of 25 people, but Kate did manage to get some pictures and will post them on her blog Embarrassment of Riches.