The pandemic may have closed many New York City storefronts, but local businesses were closing, and not always being replaced, in neighborhoods across the socio-economic spectrum, long before COVID-19 changed the urban landscape. Mark Hage’s moody photo documentary book, Capital city (2020), published by A Public Space Books, describes the interior architecture of these vacant retail spaces in the years just before and during the pandemic. The book merges these two periods into a continuing, formally indistinguishable, over 100-page study of disaffection, suggesting that decades of constant real estate development have paradoxically produced a basic quotient of civic neglect.
Capital cityThe images capture the remnants of this neglect with an eye on the compositional accidents of the demolition. Hage’s camera zooms in on walls stripped of scarred and textured abstractions, pointless outlets and wires, and columns that guard the void. Windows are scarce and glimpses of the outside world are even less frequent, creating a cumulative claustrophobic effect. In the same way that the title of the book lacks specificity and the individual photographs lack a title, these interior spaces that were once carefully designed and organized now seem interchangeable, indescribable.
An epigraph by French experimental filmmaker Babette Mangolte – “How you frame something is a moral decision” – points to the ethical drift of Hage’s aesthetic choices. Capital city laments that the churn rate in the spaces market has left out of the camera frame everything except the envelopes of the spaces themselves. The book’s short and clever statement also favors the aphoristic marrow – Hage describes New York’s Soho neighborhood as “a chicxulub of commercialism,” for example – compared to the detailed socio-political background. The result is a hyper-focused archeology of urban loss, a visual inventory of commercial amnesia that forms the reverse side of the city’s recent booms.
Capital city by Mark Hage is published by A Public Space Books and is available online and in bookstores.