Essay and Photo Gallery
My interest in photographing retail landscapes began with curiosity and confusion. Over years of driving the I-81 corridor from New York to North Carolina twice yearly, I saw the 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. For years I shopped at local strip centers and malls without a thought, but the more I looked, the more they compelled my attention. How had these haphazard landscapes of uninspiring parking lots, box stores, and corporate logos become a dominant feature of community landscapes everywhere?
In 2006, I began photographing in the northeast and reading about retail development, and in May 2013, eager to witness the impact of retail development nationwide, I set out to photograph in locations from the Mississippi River to the West Coast and back.
I immediately encountered a problem: confronting an overwhelming subject. Common sense dictated that retail landscapes would be everywhere. I knew this, but experiencing their impact in town after town six hours a day, seven days a week was a shock. I could no longer turn off my attention and step away, as I had before. 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 seeing these numbers replicated in the landscape made vivid the degree our consumer choices have shaped our communities. We live in a country with many beautiful places, of which retail landscapes occupy a small percentage of land, yet actively looking at retail landscapes daily left me troubled and speculating how they are changing our lives.
I distinctly remember Metairie, Louisiana, a typical, growing suburb northwest of New Orleans. I was photographing along Airline Highway and found myself complimenting the manager of a Pelican Point car wash on his well-maintained grass, all the while thinking how bizarre the scene before us looked. Although the grass was trimmed and green, the CVS across the street new, the roads well-marked, and every construction detail likely dictated by building codes, the scene looked as if it had resulted from a jumble of parts thrown into the landscape. Boys rode their bikes down the sidewalk dodging my camera, and I wondered how they would remember this place. What sense of identity and connection to place would they take away from the hodgepodge of buildings, signage, and roadways that was their neighborhood?
Standing in a Bashas’ Supermarket parking lot in Safford, Arizona, I was composing a scene of low bushes, light poles, signage, and distant mountains when a woman drove up and asked, “Isn’t that beautiful?” I was startled by the comment. Beautiful, I thought. Are we looking at the same thing?
Then it occurred to me that she might be mentally deleting the bushes, light poles, and signage obscuring the distant mountain ridge, or perhaps she really did think the parking lot and lamp poles were beautiful. Both possibilities were unsettling. Have retail landscapes become so pervasive that we accept them as a standard for what is beautiful in the places we live, or do we just tune them out?
It was rare to come upon a scene that shouts out to be noticed, but this happened on Grand Avenue in Laramie, Wyoming. In this scene, a nameless canopy spanned across the sky enclosing a composition of a blank building facade, distant housing, gas pumps, automobiles, a Pepsi machine, an expanse of asphalt, lane markers, and in the center a young woman encapsulated in a small, USA Gasoline box structure. Maybe, for the young woman, working for USA Gasoline was an exciting opportunity, but from my perspective behind the camera the scene felt lifeless. It reminded me of a theater set—artificial, transitory, built for a limited engagement—and left me wondering what we have sacrificed for the mountain of discount goods and convenience that retail landscapes make possible.
I drove over 13,000 miles, photographed retail development in a hundred towns, and had seen, in a sense, the equivalent of 14,157 McDonald’s and 4,835 Walmart stores spread across the landscape. I came to understand that my consumer choices don’t just effect my pocket book or define who I am; they underwrite the hundreds of thousands of franchises, access roads, signs, and parking lots that fill retail landscapes across the nation, and in as much have repercussions around the globe. The sum of our consumer choices express how we value natural resources, human resources, and the landscapes we call home. When the grocery store clerk asks me if I want another plastic bag, I can now visualize that choice being made by millions of people daily. I returned home knowing, for me, that an afternoon’s shopping would never be the same.
The Retail Landscape | A Photography Project
By Drew Harty
Images in this gallery may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size or to begin slideshow:
The photographs in the Unsprawl article are available for sale as 32×48 limited edition prints or 16×20 open edition prints to help support the cost of future photography for the Retail Landscape project. Please contact Drew Harty for pricing.
Header photo of Planet Hyundai in Las Vegas, Nevada, by Drew Harty.