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Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story

Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story

by Stephen King, Photographer; introduction by Deborah Mulhern
Liverpool University Press and Neutral Spoon, Liverpool, UK, 2010
159 pp. illus. Trade, $65.00
ISBN: 978-1-84631-246-5.

Reviewed by: Aparna Sharma


Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story is a photo book in which photographer Stephen King revisits the abandoned fifth floor of the landmark British departmental store, Lewis’s, in Liverpool. The fifth floor of the store was reopened to public in the1950s after the 2nd world war and got finally shut in the 1980s. During that time the fifth floor was a vibrant place of work with a tightly-knit working culture; and the photo book revisits those years by juxtaposing interviews of employees who worked there with photographs of the abandoned floor taken in 2009. The book is replete with memories that sensorially evoke the fifth floor in terms of its daily rituals, routines, sounds, textures, colours and smells. Stephen King’s compositions are particularly striking in graphic qualities, complementing the art deco aesthetic of the fifth floor. Subtle camera angulation and the use of lighting emphasise the art deco colour scheme of the fifth floor. About the colour of King’s photographs Deborah Mulhern in her essay, Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story at the start of the photo-book states: ‘One of the most striking things about Stephen’s photographs are the colours: bold and unapologetic aquamarine and air force blue, maroon and mustard yellow, as bright and arresting as a restored Renaissance painting’ (2010: 12). Stephen King photographed the floor in early 2009. The effect of the winter light from that time of the year — cold and flattening, mixes with the art deco colours, resulting in a specific rendition of British urban landscapes. This serves in highlighting the difference between the colours associated with art deco in the UK and elsewhere, say for example, the west coast of the United States, where the movement was influential. Mulhern historicises the colour scheme adding: ‘The 1950s were a difficult but also hopeful time for people emerging from the restrictions and rationing of wartime, living and working surrounded by bombsites, as many people were in Liverpool. The designs of the 1950s were an attempt to banish the drab and down-at-heel and celebrate the actual and metaphorical introduction of colour into people’s lives’ (2010: 12).

Mulhern points out that the fifth floor’s interior designs were influenced by the 1951 Festival of Britain wherein: ‘Designers looked to science and technology for inspiration and the designs for furniture, furnishings and fittings were based on magnified atoms and molecules and the crystalline structures of minerals and metals’ (2010: 13). King’s photographs delve on this theme bringing forth the influence of scientific imagination and its amalgamation in departmental store design. The book can be roughly classified into two sections. One contains photographs that concentrate on physical spaces of the fifth floor such as a cafeteria, two restaurants and a hairdressing salon. The second section contains photographic portraits of former employees. Most of these photographs are taken by positioning the subjects in their workplace, often literally where they stood during the workday. Most portraits are full length with the aim of situating the subject’s body within the spatial context of the store. The direct gaze of the subjects toward the camera is complemented by interview quotations through which the subjects introduce themselves and share memories of working at the store. It is evident that the interviews from which the quotations have been selected were conducted in a conversational manner that facilitated spontaneity and intimacy between interviewers and subjects, allowing the latter to share their personal experiences, impressions and relationship with their workplace. The employee recollections contrast sharply with the ghostlike atmosphere of the abandoned fifth floor in the photographs. This creates a powerful effect of humanizing space — reducing the banality of the fifth floor’s present condition and inducing a human element within its narrative.

The employees who worked at Lewis’s remember there being a distinct working culture at the department store. Interestingly, numerous interviewees draw a comparison between the fifth floor working culture by recalling the famous BBC comedy series, Are You Being Served that ran from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s. Often times, employees started at Lewis’s during their teens and many had more than one family member already working at the store. The working atmosphere at Lewis’s was familial and, at the same time, formal and cordial. The interviews point at a consumer culture that specifically arose in post-war Britain and was shaped by department stores such as Lewis’s. Mulhern terms this as the process of ‘democratising luxury’: wherein the obligation to buy upon entering a store fizzled as did the assumption that working class customers would necessarily haggle (2010- 12). This is crucial in historicising British retail practices and culture that allowed for the working classes a claim in the luxury consumer goods sector. The British shopping experience was shaped to be more inclusive rather than exclusionary, and this is evident in mass media  representations of shopping in British film that are quite distinct from class dynamics as manifest in shopping experiences depicted in Hollywood films.  Over the years Lewis’s has lost much of its appeal, and now City Council plans are underway to incorporate it into a shopping and leisure complex. English Heritage has listed the Lewis’s building as Grade II in 2007, and attempts are underway to preserve the sculpture, décor, and artworks in it. British consumer culture, too, has changed dramatically. Under the present economic crisis stately firms such as Lewis’s are becoming clearly a nineteenth and twentieth century phenomena. Presently, city centers across Britain are dotted with masses of concrete being mobilized to form inert, homogenous and depersonalized retail complexes. Many artistic projects documenting the rapidly changing cityscapes of Britain have gained momentum over the last two years. Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story contributes to this emerging body of scholarship that combines fine art methods with field-based practices. This blurs the boundaries between the humanities and the arts and makes a necessary contribution to the field of urban folklore.

Last Updated 1 June, 2010

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