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Manhattan shoe store’s neighborhood portraits on display in LES exhibition

Portraits from the exhibition posted outside the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side. (Photo by Gabe Herman)

In a pre-Instagram world, Rainbow Shoe Repair, a Lower East Side shop on Delancey Street, was a popular place for decades for local residents to get photos taken, whether for passports, portraits or to mark a special occasion like graduation, communion or Easter.

A new LES exhibition features many photos taken at the shop from the 1980s to early 2000s. The show is called “Rainbow Shoe Repair: An Unexpected Theater of Flyness,” and is at Abrons Arts Center, at 466 Grand St.

The staff at the shoe repair shop, still open at 170 Delancey St., became known for taking affordable photos, first under Joseph Borukhov, who ran the store from the mid-1908s to mid-90s, and then under Ilya Shaulov, who continued the photo studio from the late 1990s to mid-2000s.

The shop’s studio became known for its backdrops of primary colors, with many photos featuring a stark red background, while a rainbow sky was another option.

An inspiration for the exhibition started with one photo, noted co-curator Ali Rosa-Salas. It was a portrait of a girl, Sammi Gay, with her father Elroy, with the red backdrop and taken in 1996.

Portrait of Sammi and Elroy Gay, posted outside the Abrons Arts Center.

“I was so struck by the composition and intimacy of parent and child,” said Rosa-Salas. “I was curious about why people were coming back to this place and where was this place?”

Along with photos on display in a space inside the Abrons Arts Center, some are also posted outside on streets in the neighborhood. That father-daughter photo is one of several shown on the outside of the Arts Center building.

“This picture was taken on Halloween,” Sammi Gay is quoted as saying in the exhibition. “I was dressed as a black Barbie and my dad picked the outfit out. I see that the hat my dad is wearing is one he designed. This picture makes me proud of him, his work ethic, and our evolving father-daughter relationship.”

Other photos are posted at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Park, Boys & Girls Republic, and Workforce Development Center.

Photo themes were posted at the various locations based on relevance, noted Rosa-Salas, such as a portrait of local resident Shawntel Dunbar, which is posted at the Workforce site because she was photographed when she first started working at Wall Street.

“Those anecdotes are really powerful, the way you fashion yourself,” said Rosa-Salas. “There’s an element of how you’re perceived. Shawntel was concerned with representing the neighborhood.”

The word “flyness” was used for the show’s title, said Rosa-Salas, to indicate that people were self-aware in the photos and knew they looked good and wanted to show it. “We wanted to highlight that these photos are intentional,” she said.

Jessica LeBron.
Another photo of Jessica LeBron in the exhibition.

The show was also timed with New York Fashion Week to show local New York neighborhood fashion, particularly with the LES struggling with issues of gentrification and holding onto its identity, Rosa-Salas said.

And while retro looks are coming back to high fashion, Rosa-Salas noted, “None of this is new. Folks have been doing this for a long time.” She added, “It’s a cool way to track the neighborhood in its transition.”

Nelson Hernandez.
Jasmine Lopez.
Wayne Casimir and Debbie Cox.

The photos were gathered from Rainbow Shoe Repair’s archives and from an open call for LES residents, who have a lot of meaning in their photos from the shop, Rosa-Salas noted, and often remember the exact circumstances the photos were taken in.

And now in the digital age, “folks are excited to share these because they’re not necessarily on display in their homes,” said Rosa-Salas, “and they have the opportunity to reflect on themselves and style, and where they were at the time.”

More photos have been contributed to the show since it opened and more people have learned about it, Rosa-Salas said. “That’s been something I was secretly hoping for,” she said. “It would be awesome if we could continue to build this archive throughout the continuation of the show.”

The show will run until March 29, and more information can be found at abronsartscenter.org.

Gabe Herman