Saturday, April 05, 2008

99 Cents


This is image, with the following caption, appears on the website for the 25-year-old California-based chain 99¢ Only Stores:
Renowned photographer Andreas Gursky describes his famous "99 Cent" photo as aisles of brightly packaged merchandise fused into a perfectly ordered whole. This 11 by 7 foot photo has been displayed in the New York Museum of Modern Art, as well as museums in Paris, London, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It was taken in 1999 at the 99¢ Only Stores located on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California. This photograph recently sold for over $1,999,999!
I love the giddy holy crap who knew this was art?! We're rich!! tone.

And why not? Gursky spotted something grand and colorful and orderly, an almost Atomic Age symbol of America's power, and captured it in a way that did not belittle it or mock it with irony. It looks like a near-future fantasy world in which food has been replaced by over-packaged pills instead of fresh-grown food. The gift of a great -- or at least a good -- photographer is to take a mundane scene and make us look at it anew. This is more than just crisp focus and giant-sized printing.

"He has embraced the gaudy blandishments of advertising without abandoning the keen observations of documentary photography," reads a the text for a 2001 MoMA solo exhibition.

What the proprietors of the 99¢ Only Stores do with it is interesting. The image at the top of this article is not only cut off in the manner of a wide-screen movie adjusted to fit a television set, it's also framed in gold, as if to signal that this is in fact art. That's a very practical solution -- how else would we know, given all the other similar images on the website? A fuller version (the original is the one above) appears on the homepage, but it isn't called out as art. And so it comes full-circle, returning to the state of advertising once again.

Henry Alford referenced both the photograph and the chain in a recent New York Times article called "How to Survive in New York on 99 Cents", which includes the following pea soup recipe:
Slice and sauté an onion. Add 3 cups chicken stock, a 1-pound bag of frozen peas, 1/3 cup oats, 1/8 teaspoon cardamom, some salt and pepper. Bring to boil. Purée in blender.
Alford says it's excellent. He served it for a dinner party in which the entire menu was prepared from 99 cent food. Of course, he went to 21 99 cent stores in three days to do it ("12 in Harlem and Washington Heights, 4 in Chinatown and 1 in Spanish Harlem").

An accompanying article called "5 Cooks, $40, 5 Dishes, 3 Desserts" challenged Le Bernardin executive chef Eric Ripert to come up with a full meal from ingredients procured at Jack's 99-Cent-Store.

So how did it go?
“Not very good,” he said, after half a blanketed pig. “It tastes all right, but I don’t know what it is,” he said of the crabcakes. The tortelloni were “good, but a little bit Olive Garden.”

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