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Callow Documentarian’s First Salvo

This is no small thing. Bodegas made it into the New York Times (actually their City Room Blog, but that’s close enough.) Notice the article’s clever title: “Encyclopedia Bodega.” It’s an article about one person’s photographic compendium of every bodega in Manhattan. They also made it into the Wall Street Journal.

Bodegas are all over New York City. Some are old and picturesque, others are rather ordinary-looking, their facades cluttered with ads and the ubiquitous “Open” neon signs. Sometimes they have extraneous objects in front of them that nobody bothers to remove, like orange traffic cones and abandoned umbrellas. In this ambitious project Gail Victoria Braddock Quagliata apparently has photographed every one of them in Manhattan. Warts and all. The results are mixed, running the gamut from the artistically composed to the fleeing, tilting snapshot.

According to her blog, Quagliata is a Brooklyn-based artist “working predominantly in various permutations of photography.” I assume this beguiling phrase means she not only delves into documentary photography but gets involved in other projects as well, like this in-your-face photographic stunt: she writes naughty words on pretty flowers before snapping them. My favorite is “Cunt, Pansy Edition.”

bodegas1But it’s the bodegas we’re interested in. The first shot on her “Documentary Photography” page is promising. (None are titled, so I’ll refer to them by the store sign.) Gourmet Deli is a night photo of a well-lit green bodega. It is eye-catching and she knows it or wouldn’t have featured it. The next few are somewhat less intriguing. Stars Candy & Cellular Phones has an excellent sign with non-stock graphics of snacks and 1990’s vintage cell phones. But it’s taken at such an unflattering side angle that it includes a warehouse-ish building on the upper left that is utterly distracting. Deli Grocery also has a good sign, but it is smeared by wrong-time-of-the-day glare. It also features one of its workers (or the owner, who knows?) standing in front. (This is rare for the photographer, who almost never includes people in her shots.)

It seems likely that a lot (if not all) of these pictures were taken without a tripod. Alzyadi Deli Grocery has such a narrow depth of field in its sign that most of it is in fuzzy focus. There’s a little white sign that’s frustratingly illegible in front of 99c Plus Grocery, the victim of the low dynamic range of the quickly snapped. I know, she likes street photography. But its strongest proponents, Gary Winogrand and Vivian Maier, flaunt their sense of composition most of the time.

Some of the shots have unexpected details in them. The umbrella I mentioned earlier? It’s on the right of Lenox Deli & Grocery, showing that the photographer conscientiously didn’t move anything around, in contrast to FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein, who lugged that cattle skull around before photographing it. The San Michael Grocery Inc is well positioned, but the exposure seems milky, its colorful sign looking like it had been underexposed and not optimized in Adobe Lightroom.

40sandflowersAnd it goes on. Nearly all of the shots on this site have been taken at similar oblique angles from the sidewalk. If they are from across the street, Quagliata may include the entire patch of street. There is a deficit of cropping of extraneous material, like unexciting adjacent buildings, peripheral children, or unnecessary vehicles. This is because she says she “photographed every cornershop on the island of Manhattan as quickly as possible.”

I have long envied New York photographers their proximity to these buildings. I would love to be out there every day finding and snapping bodegas. Despite a lack of stylistic flair, photographers James and Karla Murray photographed many of the same edifices for their book Store Front, (Ginko Press, 2010). They did it with patience, care, impeccable light balance, and very sturdy tripods. They also talked to the owners and provided captions. I applaud Quagliata’s ambition in accomplishing her purported task (as well as her expenditure of shoe leather). But I think she falls short in several ways.

One of my favorite pastimes is giving unsolicited advice. I’m old & craggy and I don’t give a damn what people think or even if they follow it. So here it goes, Ms Quagliata:

  • Use a tripod to set up all your shots. Exploit its potential, like using it for near-ground shots. I know, it’s easy to forget to bring it with you on some jaunts, but it will allow you to use higher f-stops than f5.6 or f8, and thus get every detail of the building sharp.
  • Try different lenses, particularly those in the extreme wide angle range. A 10-20mm zoom will capture every detail of your shot from the sidewalk. If that’s where you always want to shoot.
  • Underexpose. Overexpose. Shoot from your ankles, shoot from the top of a friend’s car. Check out a shop during the day and come back at twilight. As Christopher Walken says in SNL’s famed “More Cowbell” sketch, “explore the space.”
  • Take some time and teach yourself more about blogs (particularly wordpress.org). Investigate gallery plugins and turn on the posting feature, with its ever solicitous comment box.
  • Take a course in writing. Adult ed journalism courses are probably thick as flies in NYC. A commitment to acquiring writing skills will get you more gigs and train you to write clearly and provocatively without resorting to artspeak. You can even start devising snappy captions.
  • Take fewer photographs. If someone gave me access to a Manhattan apartment for three months, I would reward them with . . . 90 photos (at most). Do it right, do it less. Pick out the stores that are most photogenic. There are a lot of duds out there. Your job should be to find the the gems, post-process them, and make them worthy of someone’s walls.
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Peter Bates

Peter Bates is a writer and photographer living in Florida. He is the administrator of this blog and runs the blog Stylus.

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