Celebrating the Ordinary

As per my usual Friday evening routine, I was listening to the Albany Symphony Hour on WMHT-FM when a composition by 20th-century American composer Virgil Thomson was announced, a ballet titled Filling Station, conducted by the Albany SO’s energetic Music Director, David Alan Miller. Seriously, it really is about attendants at a gas station. When WMHT’s inimitable program host Rob Brown read a description of it as a comic classic that draws us back to pre–World War II America, “when the virtues of the frank and honest workmen were the virtues of the country,” the work of the great photographer Walker Evans came to mind as a visual (if considerably more serious) counterpart. It’s probably no coincidence that Evans embarked upon his joint project with James Agee for Fortune magazine, which resulted in the ground-breaking book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the year before Thomson composed his ballet (1936 and 1937 respectively; something must have been in the air).

Several years ago, my son Anton and I went to see a major exhibit of Evans’s work in New York City. It was a great revelation for two photographers, steeped in breath-taking landscapes and Fuji Velvia film, to see this frank documentation of sheer ordinariness, and in black and white. Anton commented, “Could you imagine anyone today photographing a Stewart’s Shop?”

That remark set me on a years-long quest to photograph a Stewart’s Shop. For those of you who aren’t familiar with upstate New York or nearby parts of New England, Stewart’s is a chain of convenience stores, mostly with gas stations, where you can also sit in the booths and eat your breakfast or lunch and read about local events on the bulletin boards. Sort of like 7-Eleven, Cumberland Farms, or WaWa. In other words, the quintessence of the ordinary, the functional, the everyday.

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This wasn’t about getting a snapshot but about making a well-composed, well-exposed photograph. A work of art. I tried many times in many places but was never satisfied with the results—until a few months ago, when a brand new, well-positioned, photogenic Stewart’s Shop opened in Catskill, NY, on a corner I drive past quite frequently. I stopped in for lunch (I love their hot dogs), and when I left, out came my iPhone. Success! I processed one of the photos after one of the styles typical for me at this stage, applying a painterly, somewhat gritty look (above); and I processed another (below)—I chose the one that didn’t scream “Taken on New Year’s Day 2021!” too loudly—in ordinary B&W, in homage to Walker Evans, perhaps the most extraordinary photographer of the ordinary there has ever been.

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