Photo Pop Philly belongs on Hollywood Boulevard, not 13th and Walnut

The stars-and-stripes Instagram clusterfuck has potential.

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Mónica Marie Zorrilla / Billy Penn
monicazorrilla

Correction appended 

There are some cool things about the American-themed selfie museum that has burrowed itself into the streetscape on the corner of 13th and Walnut. It’s definitely on trend. “Camera-ready” exhibits are all the rage these days.

While theoretically full of potential, the interactive pop-up exhibit makes more sense as it currently is in cities that champion Instagram clout, like Los Angeles or Miami, or even New York City.

In a city like this one, where authenticity and grit are prideful trademarks, Philly PR Girl’s Photo Pop Philly seems out of place — even if it is presented and sponsored by Visit Philadelphia.

When esteemed Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors began to pop-up in museums across the nation last year, it was wildly successful in every city it toured. Hours-long lines were reported, just to spend upwards to 30 seconds in each room. One article in the Los Angeles Times even went so far as to claim Infinity Mirrors was hotter than Hamilton

But when the Museum of Ice Cream came to Los Angeles and Miami (and now San Francisco), however, complaints began to bubble up: $40 for an hour in a “museum” with shallow installation pieces solely created for the intention of cute profile pics? Oh, and four samples of ice cream. (Not scoops. Samples.)

At Photo Pop Philly, there are no samples of ice cream — though it is next to Scoop DeVille — and there’s certainly nothing with the profundity of Infinity Mirrors.

So, what exactly is poppin’ there? On Sunday, in the midst of a rambunctiously joyous Pride parade and rain, my “photographer” and I went to investigate.

Two disclaimers about the notes that follow:

  1. I am not soulless nor funless. As a Gen Z/Millennial cusper, I am fully aware that society has — for better or worse — logged onto the Internetsphere and that I willingly participate in this form of public interaction and display. I am not offended by the existence of spaces that riff off of a desire for likes or a desire to be desired, because I have been conditioned to fall into that trap. That is not the basis for my critique.
  2. My free press pass made my visit to Photo Pop Philly inherently different to that of a paying customer, even though I was told by organizers that I would be treated “just like any other customer.” I thoroughly enjoyed being silly and dicking around, with the express knowledge that I did not have to pay $25 for any of this. I looked adorable:

Now, with that in mind, let’s journey onwards into the stars-and-stripes clusterfuck that is Photo Pop. 

A shrine to pussy power

Upon entering Photo Pop, the first sight that you encounter is a mural by THESEPINKLIPS fashion designer and creator Iris Barbee Bonner, a favorite at Philly Fashion Week, now on the rise nationally since clothing Cardi B and Mary J. Blige.

It’s a shrine to pussy power (something I can always get behind), with the artist’s signature gap-toothed lips logo stamped all over blurbs that say “GIRL BOSS!” and “THERE IS NO FORCE MORE POWERFUL THAN A WOMAN DETERMINED TO RISE!!!”

The only problem with this mural is that it has a bench, and looks more like a sitting area than the beginning of the museum. I nearly missed it and took a photo there at the very end of my approximately 17-minute visit.

(Per Philly PR Girl Kate Marlys, who reached out to Billy Penn after this article was published, the bench was placed there on purpose to provide options, and visitors have been taking advantage of it.)

Freedom to spend

The front entrance also happens to be the “Freedom of Speech” room, and it is the only thing in the entrance that pretends to be a nod towards the First Amendment. Unless, of course, you consider the ticket booth that, on top of a $25 ticket, also sells $12 Photo Pop Philly PopSockets to attach to your iPhones for a firmer grip (and thus, less blur) when taking photos.

Marlys pointed out to me a small posterboard (which she notes should be referred to as a window display) with Polaroids of visitors with Sharpied captions. “They’re answering the question of, ‘what does Freedom of Speech mean to you?'” Apparently, a local artist who owns an “open-air, analog photo booth” company goes around asking for these Polaroids, but only sometimes.

Upon reflecting on the significance of freedom of speech in a democratic country, one visitor responded with “Money!”

We were then given two small American flags to use as props for the allotted one-hour at the exhibit. Photo Pop’s color scheme is red, white and blue.

The nationalism is inescapable at Photo Pop, and makes the installation feel like a time-machine into a neverending Fourth of July celebration with Pinterest decorations. It’s even inescapable in the walls, where the U.S. military is memorialized as the “real stars.”

Credit for the artists?

Next, came a “room” (each room is fabricated by a partition; the whole exhibit is 2000-square-feet but feels far more compact) with a giant, glittery gold star, a Christmas-lights gold star and cotton-ball clouds with… even more stars!

I have no idea who was the artist behind all of these stars, or whether or not they were made by different artists. In fact, most of what I know about any of the artists featured came from my own research after visiting the exhibit.

Though one of the selling-points of Photo Pop is how it intentionally creates a gallery for local artists to be admired and recognized, I didn’t see much about any of them throughout the exhibit. Marlys explained that at the start, each person is supposed to be handed out a flyer with the artist’s Instagram handles; that there is a slideshow on a TV in the first room; and there is a wall “in the back” with further information.

This TV and wall must be well hidden, because I didn’t see them. Neither my guest nor I received a flyer.

This should be rectified, as it can only improve the experience, especially for those folks who are actually curious about local artists. Informational placards next to each of the murals would have elevated the overall impact of the museum.

Playing devil’s advocate here, but maybe the local artists were paid well, and don’t care that the only credit to their work is in name — or tag — only.

‘Patriotic, not political’

Next came a room with a Visit Philly umbrella, a mural where you could pretend to have eagle/Eagles wings and a cartoony rendition of Joel Embiid, where you are coaxed to try to reach his hand holding a distended basketball protruding out of the wall.

I think it was to scale? Quite frankly, I’m not sure, but Embiid was painted tall, so they got that right. [Ed: Yep, Marlys confirms it was to scale — and that the artist took great pains to make it so.]

One wall stood out in this room, however, and it was a wall with a political statement. “You belong here,” backdropped by paper flowers that made the mural look like a pro-immigrant version of the United States flag.

However, in an interview with Metro Philadelphia, Marlys assured that the exhibit is “patriotic, not political.”

At least pride is a stereotype

The next room has a wall entirely devoted to an LGBT flag made of feather boas.

The flag has a standalone white wall, while the rest of the “Empowerment Room” is a hodgepodge of ‘Murican stereotypes.

One corner has a set-up with a very stepped-on beach towel and deflated beach floats, perhaps symbolizing an Independence Day cookout or a summertime pool party.

It made me sad.

There’s also a Harley Davidson. When we visited, much to the chagrin of me and my guest, a sign forbade us from riding the Harley Davidson. Marlys reached out to Billy Penn, and told us that since my visit yesterday, they have modified this rule.

From dollar bills to ‘time’s up’

Then there’s a wall and a staircase covered with dollar bills, and a wee section awkwardly placed beside it on one end with vintage cameras, while the other end had an equally awkwardly smushed section with black hearts with the statement TIMES UP written in them.

Again, what is the line between patriotism and political statement in art? Just because something is meant to be photographed, that doesn’t mean it has to be devoid of depth or authenticity.

Who doesn’t love balloons

The “surprise room” at the end was a makeshift vault with red balloons inside of it.

I wish my bank account looked like a birthday party.

If I had paid the full $25 entrance fee for a museum that, again, only took me about 17 minutes to complete, I would have felt thoroughly disappointed.

Apparently, my time-stamp was an outlier. Marlys claims that on average, people take an average of 45 minutes to complete the visit. The longest visit Photo Pop Philly has had thus far since its Memorial Day Weekend opening lasted for almost two hours.

But hey, the photos are decent. And maybe, if that’s all you care about and have that kind of money to spare, then you belong here.

Photo Pop Philly, located on 1325 Walnut St., is closed on Mondays but open every other day of the week. Tuesdays it is open from 3 to 8 p.m., Wednesdays through Fridays from 3 to 11 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 10 p.m. The pop-up exhibit will be running from now until July 8.