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About the photos

I’ve always been fascinated by typography, and as soon as I got to art school, I started taking photos of lettering I liked, which tended to be on crappy old shop fronts. I still remember the reaction of a photography tutor when I put on a slide show consisting mainly of bits of text found on decaying signs. Although the other students seemed to appreciate it, and even found some of the images amusing, the tutor – a highly regarded nature photographer – couldn’t understand why anyone would bother with such boring images, and suspected I was taking the mick. I, meanwhile, was surprised that he couldn’t see the beauty in these fragments of communication: formal compositions of shape and colour, constructed from words which lent them a narrative. To me, they were urban tales which deserved noticing and recording, and so I continued.

In the late 1990s, I decided to concentrate on photographing commercial premises, with a possible book in mind. I’d make pilgrimages to places that looked interesting on the map – unfashionable suburbs, or expanses of white marked simply “works”. I’d also come up with themes, such as shops named after zodiac signs, and track them down via Yellow Pages (still a chunk of paper); and often locations would choose me, as I passed through them. By the early noughties – when many of the images I’m posting date from – I had just, guiltily, abandoned a vintage Pentax Spotmatic for the convenience of a digital camera.

And just as digital increasingly made real books and shops and film irrelevant, so too it sidelined my commercial premises project. Thanks to Google Street View, camera-phones and social media, happy snaps of even the world’s obscurest corners, complete with faux-vintage “film” effects, soon piled up online, and faced with such repetition I lost heart. By 2010, although I had many thousands of photos, and continued to take them, I was letting them moulder, unsorted. Then the poet Tamar Yoseloff wrote a sonnet sequence in response to 14 of my images, resulting in the book and exhibition Formerly, the success of which has encouraged me to start sharing some more sad old shops on this blog. Currently I’m concentrating on digital photos dating from 2001 onwards, but once I get round to scanning my transparencies, I’ll post some earlier findings too.

Vici MacDonald, 2015

Early photo deemed 'boring' by my tutor

Early photo deemed ‘boring’ by my tutor (I admit it’s a bit wonky, but how can a steamy cafe be boring?)

11 replies »

  1. Hi, A quick line to let you know that yesterday I resurrected Shop Fronts of Sheffield! I contributed to the original blog set up by someone else but it has been dormant for a couple of years. I contacted the chap who once ran it and he was happy for me to pick up where he left off. It has now has a new look but it is early days and as you know it takes a while to build the content. At the moment I’ve just been digging into my archive images to get it up and running. If you are interested to take a look it is here: http://shopfrontsofsheffield.com/
    I intend to add a page where I will include links to other shop front themed sites and I will of course mention Shop Front Elegy with a link. Just need to get the page up…
    Best wishes, 🙂

    • Hi – glad to alert people to shopfrontsofsheffield.com, congratulations on resurrecting something so worthwhile. Liking the Mixfolio theme, it’s interesting to see that in action. I’ll tweet your link too.

      • Brilliant! Thanks for your support.
        Yes, I think the mixfolio theme works pretty well in separating the images from comments and other info. I didn’t realise that the theme featured tabs for each image which I really like.
        I am very much enjoying Shop Front Elegy and todays post is great – although also sad.
        Best wishes, N 🙂

  2. Vici,

    This is a wonderful blog. I stumbled here via a Google search for images of the tea shop at Terminus Place, Victoria Stn. Reason: I couldn’t sleep one night and went for a walk at 3am around SW1. (Pre-digital camera era else I would have vlogged it.) I was so pleased to find the cafe open and purchased a cuppa. A purchase of little consequence but it was one of the best walks and best cup of tea’s I’ve ever enjoyed. (Me thinks I should organize dead of night walks for insomniacs or chronic early birds.)

    So many of these little shops are going. I worked on Charlotte St. W1 in the 70’s. I stopped for breaky at Ferrai’s Cafe on Tottenham Street, off Tott. Court Rd. Sadly gone I think. The guy who ran the place, and cooked by breakfast many mornings, is on the wall mural at Goodge St. Bottom left corner – big smile.

    Thanks for the pics. They so better represent London for Londoner’s that the boiler plate views of London Eye and Trafalgar Sq.

    Keith Howard
    https://lvrevisited70.wordpress.com/

    • Thanks, what a kind comment. Love the fact about the Goodge Street mural, sounds like you know more about old London shops than I do! I used to drive around weird bits of London at 3am in the 90s, which is equally sad. If only I had taken photos, but it was in pre digital days so too hard. The 80s-90s were the last days for many great shops.

      • These photos are a window into another world for me. Yet, they are quite familiar in that in the States we used to have similar establishments that have closed. Portland still has distinct neighborhoods which are a treasure.

  3. Just stumbled into your remarkable world after looking for a photo of the now sadly demolished Edmunds Tripedresser in Smithfields.

    Thankfully you’d already been there and documented it.

    This is a remarkable project – beautiful atmospheric photographs that capture the final moments of proud businesses slowly relinquishing their place on the high street, it is a paean to our collective memory of time gone by and we should all thank you for investing so much time in it.

  4. I, too, love old fonts and find myself photographing disintegrating signage everywhere, but especially out in the desert. It doesn’t mother me that others do the same thing. There is room enough for everyone’s interpretation. Mine will be different and so will yours. I really love your images. They make me smile…

  5. I love this blog, I too like to do ‘off the wall’ projects, I really like this, these places get knocked down or modernised and are gone, your blog keeps them alive. Keep it going.
    Mike

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