Sometime in the late 1990s, Zoe Leonard began taking photographs of the neighborhood around her studio in New York City’s Lower East Side. Her first impulse, as she recalls, was purely personal — just making notes for herself, an aide-mémoire, so that she could more easily remember, to hold on just a bit to what she was accustomed to seeing around her every day. But the scene was rapidly changing — socially, politically, economically, and in relation to her own perspective, emotionally. [Video interview, Documenta 12.]
So she began shooting what she saw, maybe not thinking so much about the quality, composition, how the images might look to others. I imagine these early photographs (which she’s mentioned but have not, as far as I know, been shown) capture the feel of the busy downtown street life. Pedestrians outside My Lucky Coffee Shop on Delancey Street. The cars and taxis honking at the intersection of Broadway and Grand, jockeying for position as they hustle their fares down to Wall Street, City Hall, over the Brooklyn Bridge, or through the Holland Tunnel.
Did she see the tailor setting up a display in the window of his shop at 94 Rivington?
Were sales picking up on the “drastically reduced” jackets and suits in the store on the corner at Ludlow, across from the sportswear shop?
Had the Joy Boutique, wholesale and retail company at 152 Orchard Street, with its metal rolling door down, already gone out of business, while the next occupants cut a deal over the terms of the lease for their new nightclub?
And was it a particularly cold morning the day she came across a used Rolleiflex camera in the second hand store?
How soon after she bought the camera did it occur to Zoe Leonard that her casual note-taking was becoming a much larger project? That her fortuitous acquisition would be the means for systematically collecting images of a time and place where local and global commerce are intertwined, for better or worse? Where improvised makeshift store fronts and window displays, unfashionable clothing, and outdated appliances were becoming the remnants of a displaced way of life?
Analogue, the archive of photographs that Zoe Leonard created between 1998 and 2007, contains approximately 400 images culled from the 15,000 or so photographs that she took in various locations in the U.S. and abroad. The archive provided the raw material for Leonard’s installations at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University (2007), Documenta 12 in Kassel (2007), and at the Hispanic Society of America in Washington Heights and Dia-Beacon (2008-09). A smaller group of photos were selected by the artist for a book, Analogue, produced in conjunction with the Wexner exhibition, which also includes “Continuous Signal” — quotations and excerpts from other artists and writers, compiled by Leonard, evoking the multiple interests at play in the Analogue project.
The images in Analogue trace a line from neighborhood storefronts in the city—the Lower East Side, Harlem, Crown Heights, Williamsburg, Greenpoint—to unspecified local warehouses where used clothing is sorted and bundled for export, much of it destined for Africa.
Some inference is required to tease out the implied narrative. We don’t see inside the bound bundles on the sidewalk or the workers in the warehouses where the sorting and bundling are done. What we do see, I suspect, is “what was there”, what Zoe Leonard saw as she wandered the streets of New York with her trusty Rolleiflex in hand. There is no indication that she took photographs inside those warehouses, or talked with the workers, managers, and owners involved in the used clothing trade. But the message is clear enough: “This is what I saw” becomes “This is what I found.” The evidence, the trail, is there, seen through the lens of the street photographer, laid out for us, the spectators.
Two articles on Analogue and Zoe Leonard’s work, one by Tom McDonough and another by Sophie Berrebi, are in the Autumn 2010 issue of Afterall.