The Politics of Window Shopping: Pablo López Luz's "Baja Moda"
Shop windows tend to be described as lush projections of the life we’ll never have, but they can also mirror the place we inhabit but can’t escape. The photobook Baja Moda by the Mexican photographer Pablo López Luz documents shop windows that seem arrested in time in a handful of Latin American countries. Some of these humble displays try to disguise a lack of resources, but a few show it like it is, as if their owners found it irrelevant to conceal their foibles. Precariousness is palpable in the images from Cuba - those garments hanging from unadorned racks behind a glass mended with tape feel especially bleak - but there is an unfortunate consistency to how things look throughout the region.
Selectivity can be as present in high-end shops along New York’s Fifth Avenue or Zürich’s Bahnhofstrasse as in those favored by López Luz, except that the products on view here are not the expression of a curated lifestyle but the result of shortages or failing enterprises. And yet, even under adverse circumstances, there is no fixed relation between economic hardship and a lack of design sophistication, with plenty of ingenious vitrines to be found in working-class commercial districts. While López Luz privileges sparsely designed shop windows, the book also includes a few alluring displays. For example, the arrangement of portraits against a peach background at the entrance of a photo studio could easily pass for an edgy postmodern installation. This, and most other pictures, have a bright palette that’s enjoyable to look at but which makes it challenging to explain exactly how, if these colors can be found anywhere, they expose so pointedly a local aesthetic sensibility born out of need.
The shops in Baja Moda are not gathered to illustrate economic decline, but the difficulties of running an independent business when rapidly changing tastes, technologies, and demands seem to conspire against its prosperity. In this sense, they are also the means to meditate on how commodities must be styled for our bodies to react and stare at them with desire. Nothing is on sale in my favorite picture of the series, yet the idea of display value is implied through an empty shop window. The store might be out of business or just closed for the season, but the circles in the center of the composition – a constellation of voids – serve as a metaphor for how independent shops enliven the quality of life of neighborhoods and the vacuum they leave when they fail.
Documentary photographs stir our imagination when they render everyday life enigmatic, inviting us to get lost in banal details that become meaningful when framed with intention, like the countless differences between shirts in the same shade of red hanging outside a shop entrance in Ecuador. The shops in Baja Moda are proof of inventiveness and resilience, but they also show Latin America’s economic stagnation, with most of the depicted buildings, vitrines, and products connoting a life of hardship. Still, these sites are also charming, especially since severed body parts and multiples of the same thing offer a prime opportunity for deadpan humor.
In some, the confluence of unrelated products recalls Comte de Lautréamont’s ethos of finding beauty in unexpected situations (in his case, the “chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”). What’s different here is that some of the more absurd groupings are not by chance, like those tropical attires above a row of cleaning products in a leather goods store. It is unclear whether these confluences are dictated by the owners’ urge to increase sales or if they have less to do with visual criteria and are the manifestation of failed socioeconomic policies that force stores to fulfill multiple needs.
In a brief introductory essay, the critic David Campany states that these shops “are holding out with various degrees of success against the anomie of globalized retail.” Indeed, their operational scale – partially responsible for their appearance – is not putting them at the forefront of hypermodernity. But anyone familiar with similarly humble shops knows that part of their value lies in generating social interactions that counter urban alienation. Their crucial role was confirmed recently during the pandemic when hip corporations failed to connect with people. Then it became undeniable what governments and economists know but consistently underestimate, that these independent shops are responsible for maintaining a healthy economy in working-class neighborhoods.
Several of López Luz’s previous interests in the urban landscape – the anthropological origin of ornamental patterns, primary colors, vernacular architecture – are well represented here in pictures that would make Atget grin but probably irritate Brecht because they don’t provide unequivocal answers about the living conditions of the owners and their clientele. For those of us who don’t demand that photographs explain complex social processes, the scenes captured by López Luz are more than enough to imagine a version of us walking to a shop, greeting the shopkeepers we’ve known for years, and talking to them about the weather (or football or the news) as we pay for the shoes we’ve been ogling on our way to work (in cash, because we know it’s better for them), hoping the day we’ll pass by and discover the store doesn’t exist anymore doesn’t come a day too soon.
Arturo Soto is a Mexican photographer, writer, and educator. He has published the photobooks In the Heat (2018) and A Certain Logic of Expectations (2021). Arturo holds a Ph.D. in Fine Art from the University of Oxford, an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and an MA in Art History from University College London. Arturo lives in Wales, where he is a Lecturer in Photography at Aberystwyth University.
Arturo writes a series of reviews on Latin American photographers for Dispatches: The VII Insider Blog. Check out his other articles: