Los Angeles is an ethnic society, the variety of ethnicities being very large, often changing, and divided and sub-divided into smaller groups. These groups are sometimes geographically concentrated, but even then several groups are likely to live intermixed with each other in ìtheirî neighborhood or community. Ethnically specific stores may well have substantial patronage from others in the neighborhood. And despite all the newspaper articles, most people seem to live together in a neighborly way, acutely aware of the differences between groups but also protective of ìtheirî neighbors. The community becomes the glue that holds people together as they in their diversity and difference compose that community.
Peter Reissí posters featuring small business owners in three Districts in Los Angeles, each meant to be displayed at bus-stop shelters within its own District, celebrates the small, the everyday, the particular, the neighborly, and the community. They are perhaps much like August Sanderís (1876-1964) photographs of typical persons in a community, but here the specificity of each person, his or her locatedness, is emphasized. Similarly, Martin Kriegerís photographs of the outsides and the just-insides of a variety of small stores in Los Angeles, mostly in ethnic neighborhoods, are located and specific. And the goods are identifiably different and particular, the customers often as much so. Notice just how the goods are arranged. Notice the orange boxes of Tide detergent (a universal sign in the midst of particularity and specificity). What kinds of everyday life fit into these arrangements of goods?
These photographic projects stand in a long tradition of photographs of small businesses and their owners. In the first decades of the twentieth century, EugËne Atget (1857-1927) photographed the outsides (and the in-front of the store displays, the Ètalages) and the just-insides of stores in Paris, as part of a larger project documenting ordinary life in the City and its suburbs. Subsequently, Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) and Walker Evans (1903-1975) pursued Atgetís project in the United States, producing some of the signature photographs of modern photography. August Sanderís People of the Twentieth Century project (ca. 1929, but throughout his career) attempted to catalog the varieties of German society: the Farmer, the Skilled Tradesman, the Woman, Classes and Professions, the Artists, the City, the Last People. Many of these people were businessmen and workers.
Although we now try to separate manufacturing and wholesaleing from residential and commercial activities, historically they have all been interdigitated within the city. While most of Reissís small business owners are retailers, there will be owners of small workshops and factories as well.
As for retailing, ìvisual merchandisingî is a discipline in itself, its purpose being to arrange goods in a store so that they are likely to be sold. For these small businesses, there are no professional store designers, and except for manufacturer-shipped displays, the arrangements are vernacular rather than professional. (ìVernacularî=ordinary, everyday, amateur, characteristic of a place or group.) However, the vernacular is likely to be influenced by mass media, advertising, and fine art such as still-lifes.
Of course, the bazaar, and the marketplace, were places to display oneís wares, and so the vernacular version of this discipline is very ancient indeed. With the rise of urbanization, commercial agriculture, and mass production, a consumer culture arose, and brands became a way of distinguishing similar merchandise (as contrasted to the names of the growers or craftsmen). Moreover, promenading and shopping became intertwined, and the display of merchandise in store windows was intrinsic to marketing, not to speak of displays within the stores themselves. (The storesí plate glass fronts date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The mechanized manufacture of plate glass begins in the 19th century.) Electrical lighting enhanced these possibilities. Advertising, the mass illustrated newspaper press, and catalog merchandising (Sears-Roebuck) further solidified the visual and mass character of merchandising.
Sanderís images are meant to be archetypal of the societal transformation he was witnessing. Atget captured these trends at their cusp, and Abbott and Evans photographed them as they flowered yet retained a quaintness of earlier times. The photographs here are in effect throwbacks or vestiges which retain their own integrity. [Martin Krieger]