Jim Dow

By Wakefield, Neville | Artforum International, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Jim Dow


Wakefield, Neville, Artforum International


What taxonomical photography has in common with lepidopterology, poison-frog collecting, and train spotting is that it, too, can be a means of nurturing an idiosyncratic obsession. It combines the scientism of typological investigation with the more or less obvious charm of an eccentric interest cultivated over time.

Jim Dow's recent photographic series of British storefronts, "Corner Shops of Britain," 1983-93, offers a glimpse into this kind of obsession nurtured over a decade. Forty 8-by-10 color contact prints depict the facades of family-run businesses, once keystones in the social and architectural fabric of the high street. Victims less of the recession than of suburbanization - of the one-stop park-and-shop megastore - they have been disappearing at a rate of over 3,000 per annum. Here, as with the grain silos, mine shafts, and other monuments to the demise of industry documented by the Bechers, the drive@in movie screens of Hiroshi Sugimoto, or even the newsstands of Moyra Davey, rarity is a measure of impending extinction. Records of a way of life, institutions such as Bert's Pie & Mash. Peckham, London, 1993-95, James Smith's Stick Shop, 1985-95, or Baldwin's Homeopathic Chemist, 1993-95, are captured in the period between the end of a tradition and its eventual resurrection in the form of the old curiosity shop, where the purchase of memory is made possible by the homogenizing force of the ECU.

Whereas most early photography in this genre - of the sort first acknowledged in 1975 with the "New Topographics" exhibition at George Eastman House (which included work by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Lewis Baltz, Nicholas Nixon, and Frank Gohlke) - is focused on the skillful elimination of the anthropological, Dow, like his mentor Frank Gohlke, is preoccupied with its orchestration. Although Dow's small theaters of commerce are generally unpeopled, their windows are both vitrines (they still bear the mahogany and glass stamp of their Victorian museological origins) and stages decorated for esthetic pleasure, convenience, and transactional ease. …

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