‘Our hearts sink when we walk down the high street. We are assaulted with brand names, colourless institutions that have replaced all the fun and difference of the old stores, the grocers, haberdashers, fishmongers, bakers, florists, cobblers and apothecaries. The drive for growth and economies of scale has driven the independent spirit away. Almost. Occasionally an old Victorian shopfront survives, and its beauty, elegance and sense of fun shines out like a rainbow.’
How to be Free by Tom Hodgkinson, page 19, (Penguin Books 2007), © Tom Hodgkinson 2007, Reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.
The face of Shrewsbury’s trade is a project born out of the meeting of two photographers operating about 125 years apart.
Paola Alessandri-Gray had been thinking for a while about the intriguing character of all the independent shops that contribute to make Shrewsbury such an interesting place. There are shoe shops and wine merchants, jewellers and haberdashers, florists and upholsterers, booksellers and caterers and all sorts of other specialised retailers.
The idea of taking photographs of these shops seemed fun, but at the time could not quite be framed as a meaningful project, and was put on one side with all the other ideas that might at some future point come to fruition.
During the following months, looking through books of old photographs of Shrewsbury, Paola came across many pictures of local shops. Some of them seemed to have a similar style, as if taken by the same person, so she went down to the Archives and started searching the photography collections. What she found was a most beautiful collection of about 80 glass plates of great quality, taken at the end of the 19th century by a Joseph Lewis Della Porta. Here suddenly was a powerful body of work that could be an inspiration and a reference to create a dialogue through the ages between the old photographs and the new ones that Paola would take. The fact that J L Della Porta was born of Italian parents who came from the same region as Paola, and that he was a founding member of the Shropshire Photographic Society made the connection all the more poignant.
The project took over 18 months to complete and consists of 47 photographs taken within Shrewsbury’s river loop. Some businesses are as old as 120 years, some have started very recently. They all contribute to the town’s vitality and interest. Those that do not feature in this collection are no less valuable than those that do.