© Snorri Sturluson
The other day I came across a New York Times article about the massive luxury tower going up at Park Ave and 56th Street in Manhattan, which explained that these kinds of developments are pricing regular people out of the city. I thought about how, at “ground level,” as it were, the “regular” businesses in the area would fare after such a development went up. Would it be a help, in that plenty of new residents will be there, or will the “Russian metals barons, Latin American tycoons, Arab sheiks and Asian billionaires” not be interested in setting foot into rather plebian businesses? In this sense, it’s worth considering Snorri Sturluson’s recent book Laundromat as a kind of elegy for a particular kind of business that might be disappearing sooner rather than later, at least in parts of Manhattan: the laundromat.
Laundromat is a series comprised entirely of photographs of New York City laundromats, taken in all five boroughs. They’re all shot straight on, from a position at street level. The photos are actually at more or less the same angle as Google's infamous Street View camera, but I don’t think there’s any conceptual reason to use Street View here. More often than not, Sturluson will frame up the laundromat with some people nearby, offering some sense of what the area is like, but we rarely see anything else. In short, it’s a strict typology of the NYC laundromat.
This places the work quite close to the Bechers, and in his essay for the book, writer D. Foy makes this connection between Sturluson’s laundromats and the Becher’s water towers. But he also goes into some detail about the emotions behind laundromats. Foy, who says he has “rich experience” with laundromats, says: “Whatever we may say about laundromats, whatever goodness they may give, every single one I’ve ever known is an oasis of despair.” That's some tough love, to say the least, but Foy goes on to explain that the laundromat holds a "curiously elevated status in the collective European consciousness." Who knew? In describing Sturluson's inital experiences of American laundromats, Foy says that "it was as if everything he’d gathered about America over the years—the loneliness and pathos of the Jim Jarmusch films he’d seen growing up in Reykjavík, the mysterious lack that pervades the prose of Paul Auster, the shade of Weltschmerz in the songs of Tom Waits, and the city’s ambivalent sense of gritty despair and taunting possibility that have drawn so many millions to it—all these contracted in a brilliant epiphany.”
Laundromat has been published as a book by Powerhouse. If you purchase it today, you might consider it a document of a living culture, but who knows—before long, it might be better classified as a historical document.