Forgotten spaces: A photographic lament for New Zealand's retail dead zones

Photography Peter Black

Some places forge ahead. Others stay the same, or slip slowly away.

In The Shops, the book he made with writer Steve Braunias, photographer Peter Black shows a counterpoint to sunny, computer-generated renderings of hopeful urban futures. His photographs explore the forlorn beauty of neglected retail spaces, shops that look a little wan and lost. The book begins with a delicate, elegiac essay by Braunias that loosely weaves a traumatic childhood memory with his recollections of a group of shops in his home town of Mount Maunganui. The essay goes on to explore the fraying retail patchwork of the country’s cities and towns. “Shops are our dream factories, places of glamour, also signs of civic pride. They make us feel good about where we live,” Braunias writes. But he sees this positivity being eroded. “There is a particular kind of dying of the light all throughout New Zealand,” he writes. “An invasion of emptiness, a wreckage and desolation.” In the following interview, Peter Black talks about creating the images that make such eloquent companions for Braunias’ words.

JEREMY HANSEN Why shops?

PETER BLACK I didn’t have a particular interest in shops until Steve [Braunias] contacted me through email and said he liked my work. He was interested in shops, particularly the backs of shops. He’s a genius. He’s funny but he’s also honest and I thought it would be a dream to work with him, but I never thought it was going to work. We’re both bad bastards who probably don’t work very well with other people. So the idea was Steve’s and I just sent images to him from time to time just to keep him up to date. We never travelled together. The particular places I was photographing could be anywhere in New Zealand. These photographs were not meant to be documentary truths. They are a fantasy, these little slices of New Zealand. I just came across things where I was attracted by the colours, or the light, or something that I wouldn’t be able to put into words. But it wasn’t intended to be, ‘this is the end of shopping’.

So your works aren’t a comment on urbanism?

I read the photos as a lament for these retail pockets that were kind of doomed. That’s of no great interest to me. I don’t like shops particularly. I’m very happy with the internet. I love digital, I love modern. Steve’s idea of lament, I get it and I appreciate it and understand it, and for me the book would only be half as good without Steve’s writing. The writing sets the scene for the photos. It adds something to them without even mentioning them. When I’m at the back of a shop looking at a building, I’m trying to keep all thoughts out of my head, otherwise I would end up taking a photo that is not my own idea. I have to be completely vacant and let the image wash over me. I don’t feel sad about them. They’re kind of a celebration for me. They interest me as photographs.

So how do you know when you’ve spotted a potentially interesting image?

Like the Makaraka image for example (above) - I remember going to that fish and chip shop quite a bit as a kid, so it has a sort of nostalgic curiosity for me, but what was it that made you stop and take a picture there? The thing that attracted me was this wonderful naive painting of a horse, then there was the fish and chip shop which seems so touchingly sad. People would buy their fish and chips and sit outside on this highway and eat them, but that’s very New Zealand. I had to include that. I don’t find any of this stuff depressing. I find it wonderful, quite inspiring in a strange sort of way. Steve mentioned he loves these places as much as looking at mountains and scenery, and I agree with him. The backs of places where nobody wants to you go. You might be asked what the hell you’re doing there. That adds a slight tension to things. But there’s always something there that’s interesting.

“[This photo] has that warning [about the security camera], which is a little joke because I’m taking these pictures when I’m supposedly being watched,” Black says. “I love the scratchings near the door handle. How? Why are they there? It’s kind of touching in a way.”

“What I liked about this is the light coming through the weeds,” Black says. “I love the clouds coming out like smoke from the building. I will just be walking along there with an empty head and I will have seen this backlight, and it’s not the way Kodak would have told you to take a picture in the early days, but breaking those kind of rules is a necessary and important thing to do. I can’t tell you anything more than that I was trying to make a good photograph. To the average person there’s not a photograph there, but to me there is one.”

“There’s so much going on in this photo,” says Black. “The rust on the new container. I don’t know what is stored in there. The colours. I had to include the Super Value sign because the colours kind of match up, the grass and the green at the bottom of the very modern building. We know it’s going to look terrible very quickly. All these things interest me, but it’s very subconscious. I’m lining things up, I’m appreciating the green and the colours, but I don’t have any ideas about the world or how things are changing when I’m photographing.”

“This is a computer repair and shop that sold computers in a strange part of the world. I guess you would make a special destination to go there if you lived in Palmerston North, so it’s really a destination place, not a place you would think, ‘oh, I must buy a computer’. To me it’s the end of personal computers, which are becoming the dinosaurs of the electronic world. I like the irony of ‘Real is Computers’.”