The Luminous Landscape Grant
The Retail Landscape
Drew Harty - NY, USA
The Retail Landscape project looks at the impact of retail development on community landscapes across the country. In two generations the number of retail spaces in the United States increased from 7600 in 1964 to 107,773 in 2011, yet we rarely pause to give them a second glance. It is my hope the retail landscape photographs will engage viewer’s imaginations in a way the physical retail landscapes we negotiate every day simply do not.
My project looks at the impact of retail development on community landscapes across the country. Over years of driving the I-81 corridor from New York to North Carolina twice yearly for work, I saw the diverse range of local hotels, restaurants, and retail stores disappear as new franchises crowded around every highway exit. In the upstate New York town near my home, I saw main street businesses fail as the amount of franchise retail space on the outskirts of town tripled with no corresponding increase in population. It seemed everywhere I traveled haphazard landscapes of uninspiring parking lots, building facades, and corporate logos had become a dominant feature of communities. I came to feel these new landscapes reflected changing American values and began photographing the Retail Landscape to document what I had witnessed.
My goal is to complete a nationwide documentation of retail landscapes that can contribute to the public debate about responsible development through a book and exhibits at university galleries. From 2006 to 2012, I photographed retail landscapes periodically throughout the northeast. In 2013, I traveled 13,000 miles and spent four months photographing retail landscapes full-time in locations from the Mississippi River to the west coast and back. I am applying for the Luminous Grant to complete the documentation east of the Mississippi in southern states and along the I-81 corridor north to Pennsylvania.
It is my hope the retail landscape photographs will engage viewer’s imaginations
in a way the physical retail landscapes we negotiate everyday simply do not. A homogenous, branded landscape is hard to care about, and it is difficult to grasp the degree of retail development across America. I struggled to frame the project for those reasons until I spent five hours a day, seven days a week for four months actively looking at and negotiating commercial strips on my recent trip west. A quick Google search reveals, for example, that there are some 11,789 Dollar General stores, 14,157 McDonald’s, 25,549 Subways, and 4,835 Walmart stores crowded into every corner of the continental U.S. The list goes on and on, and the accumulative impact of these numbers in town after town made vivid how our consumer choices and use of the landscape shape our lives and the places we live.
My retail landscape photographs have been described as both disturbing and beautiful. People often comment on the tension between the retail landscapes depicted and the suggestions of a timeless, natural landscape. For many viewers, this juxtaposition plays on their expectation of a very familiar subject and has prompted conversation about the retail development in the places they live.
The Retail Landscape project emerged from a history of personal projects photographing the built environment and many professional photography and
film projects about architecture and cultural identity throughout my career. In my professional work as a freelance photographer and filmmaker, I collaborate with museum curators, designers, and educators. I have to think about the narrative of images within a history exhibit or a media installation and, most importantly, what audiences will take away from the photographs. These experiences helped frame the Retail Landscape project. I decided to have curators, architects, city planner, artists, and the general public evaluate work in progress, and I set the goal of creating imagery that would be accessible for a broad audience.
Approach to Project
After a careful review of retail landscapes images taken west of the Mississippi and since working with a book designer, I have concluded my approach to the subject matter needs to be more varied. To date, I have shot with a camera on a tripod and typically pictured elements of the retail landscape in a broad scene resulting in images of similar composition and scale. In future shooting, I will also work with a handheld camera to capture details of the landscape and move closer to buildings where a camera on a tripod is too conspicuous. A handheld camera will bring more energy and variation to the images that will punctuate a book layout and the subject thematically.
In addition to the photography, I am taking other steps to move the project forward: I reviewed and edited photographs taken to date and produced a portfolio of sample prints and thirty-five, 30x40 gallery prints; attended a workshop on writing book proposals at the Center for Contemporary Photography in Woodstock and wrote a book proposal; worked with a publishing consultant and book designer to create specifications for a book, a sample cover, and sample layouts; and presented the book proposal and photographs to publishers and other reviewers at Review Santa Fe and the Center for Contemporary Photography photo review in New York City.