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