Taking photographs: the difference between New York and Glasgow

21 October 2007 | ,

Taking photographs in New York’s Fifth Avenue is a completely different experience to taking them in Glasgow’s Argyle Arcade. I know, I know, this statement may seem obvious to any person familiar with both contexts, but in this global world of ours, where Guinness and Starbucks are ubiquitous, the statement is perhaps a little more profound than it seems on the surface.

For a photographer taking snaps of shops and practices of consumption, NYC is heaven. No one minds! I could be as conspicuous as I wanted and that took me by surprise. There is an air of having seen it all, of displays being photographed constantly by tourists, by anyone. In fact, I am almost sure that those displays are especially created to be photographed, taken, visually consumed. They don’t display things to be bought, rather they are enticements to look, and look more, and look again and look inside the shop. Only the Manolo Blahnik security guard got slightly uncomfortable by my constant snapping and ever more daring compositions (my breath left circles on the shop window).

Glasgow, on the other hand, is full of fear: fear of being taken advantage to, fear of losing property. I realised early on I had to ask permission when carrying the Mamiya around, with its presence and clackety-clack shutter sound. the fear manifested itself in the responses I got:
• We can’t let you photograph in the shop, but the street is public, I suppose
• We had a robbery a few moths back and we can’t allow photographs
• Photographing shops is not allowed –(is this legally true?)

This is what was told to me, but apart from that, I am sure there were thoughts around intellectual property, copying designs or shop displays, building a master plan where the shop configuration, where its structural weaknesses showed themselves. I was looked at as if Art and Research were my covers, even though I had all my GSA staff, SHU student credentials, an outline of my research, and was happy to negotiate. Getting shops in Glasgow was hard work, hence why of my bridal shop and Agent Provocateur photos are night shots. I must, however, give credit to Berry’s, from Argyle Arcade, who were not only incredibly helpful, but also told me they were honoured, as if the business I was carrying out was of great importance (which it is). Lucky for me, they had the best display ever, with a black background and incredibly good lighting, which has spawned really interesting images at least from what I can see in the contact sheets and first scans.

New York has seen it all. Glasgow protect all it has. This is no doubt in part due to the fact that Fifth Avenue and Argyle Arcade are not comparable in global or capitalist terms. If I overstepped the line, the Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Manolo Blahnik corporations, would have fallen on to me with their legal team angels as hard as a vengeance. In New York, I was dealing with anonymous people, standing in for a name of someone they haven’t even met. A part from the occasional busybody, they didn’t care. In Glasgow, however, people had interests, were active agents in the bond I was offering. NYC was easier, but Glasgow was more real and that, I think, is reflected in the screen that separated me from my objects of desire and seduction.

3 thoughts on “Taking photographs: the difference between New York and Glasgow

  1. Interesting difference. I’ve noticed the same too. But you use the F-word to explain it – “fear”. I’m not sure that I agree. It’s more the P-word – “privacy”. Right now I’m reading “Watching the English” by Kate Fox – a highly readable account of anthropologicial research into English national characteristics (I know, it’s Glasgow and they’re not English, but stick with me on this for a bit). I was actually recommended this book by a member of our security services to help with the research I’m doing on design and counter-terror. She argues – and provides a whole range of examples – that “it is impossible to overstate the importance of privacy in English culture”. Most of the English rituals – greeting, conversation, flirting, queueing, pub behaviour, shopping, etc – are shaped by the overwhelming need for privacy. Indeed so is building design. In my experience (and I may regret saying this on a website) this need for privacy is more acute north of the border. Kate Fox also points out that this privacy thing leads to behaviours which quite understandably drive Americans and Southern Europeans totally nuts with exasperation. Interesting chapter on dress codes – nothing specific on shoes – but interesting observations on why the English like fancy dress, and why straight English men cross dress at the drop of a hat.

  2. Your mention of English dress codes completely sold the book to me, as this is a mystery I have been wondering about for a while. Spanish men tend to cross dress only if there are guarantees that it will get them into a bar!

    Your distinction between fear and privacy is absolutely fair and your succinct analysis goes deeper into the causes of what I experienced wandering around Glasgow with a camera. But if you look at it again and ask why that vehement defense of privacy, we might be coming up with the F-word again: fear of the other, fear of the neighbour. This is something that many nations experience today (including Spanish and Americans). I think, however, this fear of the other is visibly manifest in English culture, particularly through a relationship to “things”, stuff. In that way, it has possibly become more socio-cultural and less internalized (which could be pathological, as certain American attitudes demonstrate). I mean, I learned the concept of “drawing the curtains” 10 years ago, when I moved to the UK…

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