Flore de Préneuf, a D.C.-based photographer, has installed 66 photographs she’s taken of District liquor stores in the empty space that used to house Walter Johnson‘s liquor store at the corner of Florida Avenue NWand North Capitol Street NW.Since she began her project in 2015, several of the stores have closed or been altered or destroyed.
De Préneuf was born in France in 1973 but spent three years as a teenager in Bethesda and Rockville. She returned to the area as an adult in 2004 and has lived in D.C. most of the time since. She began her career as a freelance journalist and photographer in Jerusalem in 1998. She says her photography “veered away from photojournalism as a reaction to the second Intifada. I wanted to show street life in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza outside of the violent news cycle.” Past works have included “Local Color,” a series of photos from Texas in 2008, and “Chronique d’un dialogue de sourds,” an account of four years of war and peace in Jerusalem, published in 2003.
We recently spoke with de Préneuf about her work, what inspires her, and what draws her to D.C.’s liquor stores.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Washington City Paper: Why did you decide to do a project about D.C. liquor stores?
Flore de Préneuf: When I photographed my first liquor store back in June 2015, I saw the building with its bright advertising and metal fencing as a metaphor for need and dependence. That thought quickly receded in the background, however. Within days, I was captivated by the variety of storefront architecture, the glow of old neon, and the surreal quality of liquor store window displays. I was hooked by the stores’ physical presence and aware they might disappear.
WCP: How many stores have you documented so far? Are there any you haven’t photographed yet?
FDP: I’ve made 1,200 images of 105 liquor stores to date. That’s less than half the class A retail businesses listed by the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration in DC. Flore de Préneuf
WCP: You indicated that there is a higher concentration of liquor stores in D.C. than in neighboring jurisdictions. Why do you think that is?
FDP: Virginia, for instance, has 350 for the whole state. The rules governing the sale of alcohol vary by state and sometimes county. That we could live just a few minutes apart but experience different retail landscapes in the DMV is a reminder that there is nothing “natural” about the way our streets look and feel. The streets are a product of accrued history and political choices.
WCP: What’s your typical visit to a store like? How do you explain what you are doing and gain the staff’s confidence? What has the response been like?
FDP: I’m usually met with a mixture of amusement and incredulity by patrons outside the store. There’s also suspicion that I want to buy the block and gentrify. I sometimes bring a small portfolio book to explain the project, but I like the fact that it’s not immediately obvious why I would want to photograph liquor stores. I enjoy the banter as much as the photographs. I don’t always go inside. When I do, and the staff isn’t too busy, we talk about the age of the store and the general state of the liquor business. I’m sometimes invited behind the plexiglass as a sign of trust. It’s like visiting the cockpit.
WCP: You said some stores are disappearing. Why is that?
FDP: Compared to other businesses, D.C.’s liquor stores have had a remarkably long run—that’s what makes them so wonderful to photograph. Some of the stores in operation today are from the mid-1930s, right after Prohibition was lifted. Even today, amid the real estate frenzy, you’ll notice one-story liquor stores holding their ground next to huge new condos. But the pressure to sell and build something different is increasing. I was told that the wholesale-to-retail model has changed, with narrower profit margins for liquor store owners. I imagine competition from e-commerce and big box stores will further squeeze these small businesses.
WCP: What are some of the elements that differentiate stores in wealthier and poorer areas?
FDP: They all trade in glamour and fantasies. Surprisingly, a lot of the bottles for sale are the same. I’ve seen Veuve Clicquot champagne prominently advertised on Kennedy Street, while cheap whiskey is a staple in poor and rich stores alike. But of course the differences are striking. Stores in rich areas hold wine tastings and display old photographs of Washington notables. Stores in poor areas, particularly in areas that were touched by the 1968 riots, greet customers with metal bars, harsh lighting and partitions. They feel, to me, like prison parlors. At the same time, I know they are vital to the neighborhoods they serve since they double as banks and grocery stores in what are otherwise commercial deserts.
WCP: Do you find these places appealing? Flore de Préneuf
FDP: Visually appealing, no doubt. Intellectually, I find them fascinating because they are such faithful mirrors of the society they serve. Aspiration and addiction, exclusion and exploitation—it’s all there.
WCP: Tell me about the location of the exhibit and why it’s appropriate.
FDP: The exhibit takes place inside the former Walter Johnson’s liquor store, at the corner of Florida Ave. and North Capitol St. Back in October 2015, I had a conversation on that very corner with someone who asked me, “Why would you photograph liquor stores when there are so many beautiful monuments?” The fact that Walter Johnson’s has closed and the retail space is now part of a remodeled upscale apartment building is a good answer. It’s a reminder that things change and that it’s urgent to notice, treasure, or at least document what’s around us.
WCP: Tell me a bit about the technical aspects of your photography.
FDP: Technically, this project is the digital equivalent of taking Polaroids. I use my iPhone4, with an app called Hipstamatic that allows me to order prints straight from the phone. I don’t spend any time adjusting or re-cropping them. The prints arrive in what looks like a pizza delivery box.
WCP: What emotion do you feel when you see these places or look at these pictures?
FDP: I feel a collector’s pride. I remember the details that drew my eye and the conversations I had.
WCP: What do you want the viewer to take away from your work?
FDP: I’d like viewers to feel that curiosity is its own reward. The city reveals itself to those who seek.
The exhibit will be on view through Oct. 15 at 1542 North Capitol St. NW, Washington, D.C. The gallery is open Saturdays and Sundays from 12 p.m.-6 p.m.