Gail Victoria Braddock Quagliata has been taking photography in stride. Literally.  Since December 2012, the Brooklyn-based artist has been tirelessly canvassing the corridors of Gotham on foot, in order to photograph every bodega in the City. Quagliata’s project, aptly titled “Every Bodega in Manhattan” is a conceptual documentary project whose mission is to preserve the unique characteristics that define the NYC landscape before one big national bodega chain aka—7-11—takes over. The photographer began her odyssey on W220th Street and will conclude her journey at E130th Street. I had the good fortune of joining Quagliata for the last leg of her project, which took place in Harlem. To track the progress of this project, click here.

Gail Quagliata on the scene for her Every Bodega in Manhattan project

Gail Quagliata on the scene for her Every Bodega in Manhattan project

Heather Zises: You’re still standing!

Gail Victoria Braddock Quagliata: Ha, barely!  It’s been a whirlwind tour…

HZ: I’m sure people keep asking you this, but how many bodegas do you think you have you shot by now?

GVBQ: So far, I have photographed over 4000 bodegas and have 12,000 GB of raw files. Unfortunately my cats are not helping me keep tabs on the photo count because they do not have opposable thumbs…

HZ: When did you start this opus?

GVBQ: I initially came up with the idea for this project when I was still a graduate student at Pratt in 2009.  I was going to do it for my master’s thesis, but then quickly realized that photographing every bodega in Manhattan in a finite amount of time was too much of an undertaking!

HZ: Makes sense. But even now, four years later, there still seems to be urgency about completing the project.

GVBQ: New York changes all the time…so this project is a catalogue of “right now.” I am concerned that iconic pieces of the city will drown in a sea of corporate homogeny, therefore I am desperate to collect these sites before bodega owners are driven out of business.

HZ: What was your inspiration to do this project?

GVBQ: When I was at The Art Institute of Chicago, I remember watching This is a History of New York, a documentary film on NYC by Jem Cohen, and I enjoyed seeing all the different neighborhoods of New York. The layout of the city was so different from the Chicago landscape in which I was living at the time. When I finally moved to New York ten years ago, I remember being so surprised and delighted that the city looked just like it did in the documentary. It was when I moved into to Williamsburg 7 years ago that I really started to enjoy living in my neighborhood and the warmth of the community. I loved getting to know my neighbors – there is this one local grocer who always gifts me free fresh fruit and beans! However, things shift as the older generations pass on and as a result I have watched my own neighborhood change.  In order to meet the needs of the younger generations, my neighborhood is undergoing a process of gentrification. I understand that neighborhoods can and will change, but when they all become the same neighborhood, that’s just creepy! So with that in mind, I found myself wanting to preserve the characteristics of each neighborhood and I felt that bodegas were a solid reflection of this.

Harlem bodega

HZ: Have you been adhering to a particular system or structure when photographing the bodegas?

GVBQ:  When I first began shooting this past winter, I didn’t really know what I was “looking” for in regards to composition. Initially, I had these romantic ideas of taking night shots only, or just featuring 24-hour bodegas. However, I realized these goals were nearly impossible to achieve as only one person working on this project, plus I didn’t have GPS on my phone until three months ago. Too much was being left up to chance. Therefore I set some ground rules and that is when the project really began to take shape.

HZ: What kind of ground rules?

GVBQ: In respect to photo pioneers Bernd and Hilla Becher, I make an attempt to control all possible aspects of my shooting conditions to allow a blank canvas on which the stores themselves are paramount.  I shoot only in the daytime, I use the same camera—my Nikon D800E with one 50mm lens—and I make the storefronts my central focus. I prefer that my compositions do not have people in them because I feel that they “date” the work. I attempt to shoot a reduced structure in a deadpan manner, not unlike the images in Ed Ruscha’s vanguard photo books 26 Gasoline Stations and Every Building On the Sunset Strip. Undoubtedly, Ruscha’s documentary photo series has provided me with plenty of inspiration for this project.

HZ: Do you have any stories from your daily shooting?

GVBQ: Too many! In an effort to get clean shots, sometimes I will “stake out” a bodega and wait for people to exit the storefront.  Often times, bodega workers who are moving inventory from outside to inside grow paranoid at my lingering presence and begin to stare back at me.  One time a bodega employee asked me if I was a cop! After I said no, he waited a minute and then asked me for a cigarette!

HZ: Once you implemented your ground rules, did you find that you were able to work more efficiently?

GVBQ: Absolutely. I can now document each bodega in about three shots. But, I also need to be realistic about each day—there are certain circumstances which I cannot control like bad weather or injuries—I’ve been walking roughly 15 miles a day and I have a torn ligament in my foot from this project! Based upon these factors, I maintain a “skip list” which notes all the bodegas that I missed photographing but will need to come back to once I conclude the project in the next few weeks.

HZ: How did you first become interested in photography?

GVBQ: When I was in high school in Omaha, NE, I studied “old school” photography—as in I spent 3.5 hours a day in a lab and a darkroom developing prints. We were assigned advanced projects that involved topics such as photojournalism and portraiture. I learned so much about the medium during those years.  When we graduated, we were awarded a certificate that essentially classified us to work as an apprentice for a professional photographer. I then went on to get my BFA from The Art Institute of Chicago where I studied film and video.

HZ: Final question for you: What is the craziest item(s) you have seen being sold in a bodega?

GVBQ: Up around W160th and Broadway I saw a table of obviously expired nail polish…and women were flocking to it and actually buying it…the nail polish table was accompanied by random onions, a fax machine and some bagels that looked like the shop keeper had brought them down from his breakfast table that morning…and then of course because it’s New York, there is the bodega on Fifth Avenue that sells caviar! There is even a sign in the front window that reads, “Yes, we sell caviar.”