It goes without saying that every walk of life is affected by memes and photography is no different. However, instead of just sending the cutest baby Yoda, you actually get a chance to creatively add to them. So here are four of the best urban photography memes that you can get out and shoot yourself.
I hate memes. I hate the fact that there are a clutch of images of cats, Yodas, crying kids, screaming women, and fixated male stares that I end up receiving, before forwarding them on to some other unsuspecting recipient. That’s not to denigrate the wider cultural memes that are spawned on a daily basis, but we seem to have a close affinity for the widespread dissemination of photos. So I hate that fact that I like looking at them, rather than hating them per se.
Photography memes are a little different and there is a reason I dislike some of them. By definition, following a meme means copying someone else’s idea. Not in a copyright stealing way, but seeing what they have done and reproducing it in my own way. Photography is wonderful because it is creative and I think I should be building on something great, not just making a version of it. However I’m cautious at raising my nose at what is a rite of passage as a photographer. You only get better at your art by practicing and there is no better practice — or compliment — than imitation.
Yet photography is different in the way it produces memes and I like to think that they fall in to two camps: those that are cringingly bad and those that generate a positive vibe. The list of cringingly bad ones that are copied ad infinitum will be left for another day, however you only need to think about silhouettes of people jumping in the air to get an idea of what I think these might be. The reason these are so bad is that, beyond their graphical form, they make no commentary and have nothing to say about wider society and culture. They are shallow in a world that is complex. They are a one second Tinder swipe to irrelevance.
The ones that create positive vibes are a little broader in scope and often have a history that dates back decades through a lineage of well known photographers. In contrast to poor memes, they have a lot of cultural context and can speak volumes about where, how, and why we live the way we do. They can touch you, move you, and live in to the future. The best can change their narrative as society changes. So here are four that — as a rite of passage — you simply have to go and shoot for yourself.
Launderettes hold a special place in the history of photography. In a wider cultural context we have the classic advertisement from Levi Strauss that spawned a meme in and of itself (with Diet Coke and Carling both following suite), whilst there is also the cult movie My Beautiful Laundrette.
Why is there such a cultural fascination with launderettes? Their first appearance in post-war UK reflects optimism, health, and the golden age of science and technology. It also speaks to a spacious, clean, and stylish internal space. In the Levi Strauss ad it shouts chic uber-Americana — a stainless steel clad, space-age, store of sentinels stood side-by-side ready to march in to action.
Search for “laundromat” on Fstoppers and you’ll get a ton of results, including Fstoppers own Gabrielle Colton with her take on the genre. Fine art photographer Nick Carver spent 6 months shooting one laundromat, whilst Hoxton Mini Press have just published Launderama, a guide to all London’s 462 launderette’s. Hopefully they can clean up on that one!
Diners initially make me think of the stereotypical American version, be it where they serve the “World’s Best Coffee” in Elf or dish up a fine chowder at Fat Morgan’s in Homecoming. They are a cultural melting pot where all walks of life come together for, at the very least, a cup of hot Joe. Dorothea Lange did this with Cafe at Pinole, whilst Robert Frank trod the same path with Drug Store — Detroit, replete with 10c Orange Whip.
My own example was shot at Fat Boy’s Diner at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London, filled with its 1960s decor. However the meme is more than Americana, transcending national cliches. In the UK I’m thinking of the greasy spoon typified by the Bridge Cafe in London, last port of call for the losing team in The Apprentice.
Let’s be clear — not hairdressers. Definitely not hairdressers. There is possibly some unconscious bias here, as barbers appear to have carved out a niche in photography. Maybe it is the male dominated culture of both professions, the semi-industrial nature of the space, or the intimacy of the setting, but barbers have the edge. The barber’s chair screams dentist or hospital theater — they hark back to the trade of barber surgeons in the Middle Ages who undertook surgery and dentistry (the reason for the striped barber poles). The chairs actually date to the 1850s and reflect innovation for barber shops.
Walker Evans returned to this topic repeatedly, in Havana in 1933 and again in Atlanta in 1936, whilst Robert Frank visited a barber’s in South Carolina and Diane Arbus in New York. Michael Omerod and Peter Brown also offer their own color variants, this time outside a closed shop. It’s also a topic Geoff Dyer talks about at length in The Ongoing Moment — is the barber a visual knot that stops photographers in their tracks, repeatedly returning to? My own take on the barbers is more traditional, more in line with how Evans saw them. Has the world turned at all in the intervening century?
4. Hardware Stores
Last but not least are hardware stores, those veritable treasure troves of useful — and not so useful — hardware, tat, and junk. The stores that literally sell everything with all their goods and wares on display inside and out. I’m reminded of Arkwright in “Open All Hours“, along with its earlier incarnation in the form of the “Four Candles” sketch.
Yet hardware stores take on a lifeblood of their own as a place people want to go to, linger in, and discover “things”. For the community they are a cornerstone, whilst for the photographer they are a visual feast.
What do these all have in common? They are all places we frequent, that we have a close cultural attachment to. Diners, barbers, and hardware stores each have a long history with their own cultural norms that make them an infinitely versatile source of creative inspiration both in terms of the spaces themselves and the people who inhabit them. To this list we could easily add cobblers, bars, and bookstores.
I have to return to the launderette which is special — O so special. If you haven’t done so already, shoot your local store before it disappears. It is part of an endangered species.