A cursory glance at Shopping, a collection of “photographs” by Merry Alpern, reveals a number of shortcomings—to put it kindly—or reasons to dismiss the book—to put it more accurately. The work covers tiresome territory—the banality of consumer culture as found in department stores. The images are technically crude, having been recovered from High 8 videotape rather than film, and many are arguably pornographic. Most damning of all, the images were shot surreptitiously. None of the shoppers who populate Alpern’s work (except for Alpern herself) expected to end up between the covers of a book of photographs.

Remarkably, though, Shopping is a very compelling body of work. Alpern effectively navigates her ethically bankrupt and crudely rendered world to tell a worthwhile story. And in the end she achieves with her work what good representational art must: She both shows us her own soul and gives insight into the lives of her subjects. It is likely that the reader will not particularly care for either Alpern or the women she shows, but this does not make the work less absorbing.

Most of the scenes in Shopping occur in various ladies’ departments—clothing, shoes, jewelry, dressing room. Alpern feels no need to shoot seasonal aberrations like Santa or, for that matter, any other obvious symbols of consumerism run amok. To say that Alpern’s world is exclusively female is accurate (except for the occasional bored child or too-loyal boyfriend, males are absent), but it does not quite describe the thin slice of humanity that Alpern seems interested in. Middle- to upper-middle-class whites dominate the photos. There are only two blacks (both relegated to the background of a single shot), and other races are similarly scarce. But, more important, most of the women who populate the shots are literally or emotionally by themselves. The only significant relationships are between woman and merchandise, woman and money, woman and self.

Even in the few pictures of friends shopping together, or of mothers and daughters, the women seem to be lost in their own thoughts. In one frame, a mother is forcing a shoe onto the foot of her daughter; neither looks at the other. Alpern presents us with a dreamland accentuated by the softness of the video technique, where the unfolding drama seems to depend on both introversion and shared experience—a common venture that includes the embarrassment of disrobing before strangers in group dressing rooms, but a sense of common purpose—that allows the freedom for the actors to reveal themselves in other, more interesting ways. And they do: A woman crouches on a dressing-room floor, her head hung between her knees; we don’t know if she is in a state of emotional collapse or perhaps doing some stretches. Another woman (Alpern herself) takes an imaginary twirl on the runway. An older woman stands in the middle of a large public room in high heels and underwear, searching through her belongings.

Even while she is taking a very cold look at the people around her (and few of the images are flattering), Alpern seems to have some affection for her fellow shoppers. Affection is not the same as respect, however. A woman in a thong, a woman using the opportunity of public nudity to take the Special K pinch, a woman so intent on removing the money from her purse that it seems to be raining about her, a woman in an embarrassingly too-small brassiere—all of these are grist for Alpern’s mill.

Is Alpern bringing back accurate intelligence from the world she has spied on? Unless one believes that shopping is always an endless, joyless, lonely, compulsive, autoerotic experience under UV lights, the answer is no. But Alpern’s strength as an artist (and, by extension, the success of the images) is that she is able to find drama and interest in a setting that would seem banal and overly familiar to a lesser photographer. She does so by focusing on the horrible—by finding the ugly and the aberrant—not by finding the beauty. Those who come to this book seeking meaning that can be applied outside of what is a very personal vision will be disappointed or guilty of self-delusion. Women, or whites, or members of the middle class, are not universally as ridiculous as Alpern makes them; but she captures the hideous moments that all of us are sometimes guilty of. She “picks on” middle-class white women because that’s the club to which she herself belongs, the crowd among which she travels unnoticed.

Alpern spends almost a third of the book on dressing-room scenes, but the photographs taken in the public areas of the stores tend to be the more interesting, partly because they seem just as invasive. These subjects are in public and should have no expectation of privacy, but somehow they seem to. It seems to take only a slight turn of a head or a few seconds of solitude before the public face fades away and a more private self takes over, driven by some kind of raw hand-to-hand expression of id. Jewelry and garments become holy objects, handled reverently by shoppers—and by Alpern herself. Some of her lushest and most self-revealing shots are loving studies of objects: sequined purses, shoes, dress displays.

While some of the discomfort that arises from Shopping comes from seeing the less noble sides of humanity, certainly not all of it does. Alpern uses image cropping along with the rough-resolution images very cagily, to enhance the sense that we are seeing something we are not supposed to. The missing information—what isn’t in the picture because it is out of the frame or because the video camera doesn’t “see” well enough to capture it—gives work the quality of peripheral vision, an image caught in the corner of the eye and then gone.

Alpern is not the first artist to put her viewer in the hot seat. An oft-quoted example is Goya’s Third of May (1808), which places the viewer of a firing-squad scene firmly in the location of the man who gives the order to shoot. I am not comparing Alpern to Goya, but as a photographer, she does create an interesting partnership: She and reader share comparatively minor but photographically documented crimes because the taking of the photo, the existence of the photo, is criminal.

And this transgression has been of continuing interest to her. Her first book, Dirty Windows, was taken through the window of a sex club bathroom from a friend’s loft. Her subject there were drug dealers and buyers, prostitutes and johns.

Alpern’s techniques also have the effect of dehumanizing many of the subjects in the same way as some pornography, which graphically “decapitates” models by cropping. A half-dressed woman in a dressing room is the most striking, though not the crudest of many figures whose humanity Alpern seems to disregard. The figure is shown from the neck down, with a pink suit half on and half off. It is difficult to tell if she is a mannequin being dressed or a real woman dressing herself. Another woman shows us only her enormous red plaid butt; and there are several photos of decapitated nudes. Of course, it is possible, or even likely, that these shots were chosen (at least partially) to preserve the anonymity of her subjects, but that does not mitigate the effect.

The photographer is at least willing, if not always able, to jump into the fray herself. She appears in many of the images, though usually not with the same kind of detachment as those who are truly detached. As a participant, she is arguably taking the same chances as the other people who populate her images. Maybe someone else is videotaping her secretly—who would know better than Alpern? But where does that leave the reader of Shopping, complicit in these crimes?

As discomforting as Alpern’s process is, her work is genuinely moving. The otherwise tiresome dialogue about the effect of objects on self-value does not seem trivial in Alpern’s hands. And she is presenting real scenes of real life, albeit carefully chosen ones—of the little dramas and horrors we all see.

And Alpern chooses to shoot ugliness in a beautiful way. Formally, much of the work in Shopping is breathtaking. Much of it is taken from floor height (where Alpern’s bag, which hid the camera, was resting). Many of the frames have a serendipitous splendor—much like the fortuitous “loading shot” from a 35 mm camera but more so. Alpern finds her lucky shots on the move—between departments, on escalators or staircases—and these seem to form transitions between sections of the book, as well as between departments. Here, video becomes an advantage. The work is full of supersaturated colors and shimmering neutrals. Objects become superreal despite their crudeness. Even white walls seem to crackle with life. Blues, golds, browns, and pinks dance in a kind of digitized version of Monet.

Though Alpern spends most of her time on shoppers (and a bit too much on shopper’s butts) much of the most lovely work in the book occurs when she opens up the depth of field, pares down the detail, or chooses less uncomfortable scenes. An ornate showroom, a (possibly) Asian woman against a warped striped background, a study of a pink rhinestone-studded shoe are among the most satisfying shots in the book. However, these and most of the other single images do not really stand on their own. The images in Shopping depend on their neighbors. Alpern balances beauty and ugliness, drama and calm, to build a satisfying collection of work. CP