Thursday, April 28, 2011

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

by Drew Martin

I have been doing a series of neighborhood photography projects since the Fall of 2009, trying to understand what comprises a neighborhood; the people and places. I started by taking black and white portraits of my own neighbors who were then invited to a show in my backyard and were asked to take their pictures home with them. It was a hit; the show became a party and lasted into the evening.

Last spring, I did a similar show around friend's gallery in Los Angeles and then in the summer I continued this project in Prague as part of a larger group show. I am not trying to repeat myself; each time I do a new version of the show I think it's the last time but then another intriguing opportunity pops up.

About a month ago I bumped into John Flood of the New York Public Library, who mentioned I could do another show in the Reference Room Gallery of the Hudson Park Branch. In March and April of 2010, the library hosted TogetherAlone, a show of forty ink drawings, many of which I drew in that space during my lunch breaks. A neighborhood photo show seemed like a natural fit for the space since I having been working two blocks away from this Leroy Street branch for over 11 years and have spent thousands of hours taking in the area on my midday walks.

So I pulled out the Ricoh my father gave me when I was a teenager and bought several rolls of black and white Kodak film and started shooting. The camera has a lot to do with the shoot. It has a very short lens so it is not a setup you would bring on safari or to a sporting event. With a shallow depth of field and nice bokeh (the aesthetic quality of the blur), it's a great up-close people camera. What I especially like about it (particularly because of the black and white film I use) is its realism. A lot of subjects, however, don't care for its frankness. That being said, this is an unedited shoot; I am showing every picture I took without any alteration.

I like the element of surprise in film. You may take a picture of someone you may never see again and you are not sure for at least a day whether or not you actually got the picture. I attribute the look of my pictures of people not only to the physical aspects of the camera, lens and film, but to the time it requires to manually advance the film, adjust the light settings and get the perfect focus. People are used to quicker, digital snapshots so the extra few seconds tend to relax them a bit.

I took my time when I shot my neighbors in NJ but for the LA and Prague shows I shot 200 pictures in a couple hours and had them developed the same day for LA and the next day for Prague. That felt too rushed for me and I wanted to enjoy this project more, which having a full month to prepare allowed me to do.

I like talking to John at the library because he is always very patient and insightful. When I explained that I was going to hang all the photos on clotheslines in the reference room, as I had done in all the previous shows, he mentioned (and then sent me) pictures of the library's site, prior to construction, with the tenement houses strewn with clotheslines. And when we started discussing the idea of what a neighborhood is, he brought up Jean Jacobs, who was a big advocate of sensible urban planning and reminded me she was a longtime resident of the West Village. John was quick to point out that the neighborhood of our library is arguably the most famous neighborhood of New York. This reminded me of a coworker I sat next to when I worked as a graphic artist for BMW in Montvale, NJ.

The man was a jazz drummer who often performed in the city. When he found out I was moving to Ridgewood, NJ he said the most curious thing. "Ridgewood has done what the Village had set out to achieve". I did not understand it at the time but now I do. There is a great sense of community in my town, as there is in the West Village, the difference is the West Village also has constant changes to contend with, franchises replacing small shops, an influx of office workers and the domination of Bleecker Street by trendy stores, such as Marc Jacobs' Bookmarc replacing Biography Bookshop.

It is a really interesting (and sad) situation. One can simply work in the area and go to the Dunkin Donuts for morning coffee, Chipolte for lunch and meet up with another transplant coworker at Starbucks after work or one can absorb the neighborhood, get to know the people that have been living there for decades and support the smaller stores. Most office workers do the former. This neighborhood is the best of neighborhoods if that is what you want; and this is really true of every place. A good neighborhood is both a very defined physical space but also a psychological state.

My shoot in Prague left a lot of people scratching their heads. It was part of a show was called Freakshow II, and my idea there was to photograph people who lived and worked around the gallery, where they typically would not venture and whom the artists and gallery owner wouldn't be too keen on reaching out to. It was a neighborhood that I tried to force upon the gallery and the locals, which worked in some regards but also failed. I am glad that I did the show but it really made me realize that the idea of neighborhood is quite different around the world. In many places there is a preference of avoidance and as much privacy as possible; it's easier.

My own concept of neighborhood came from growing up in tight-knit neighborhoods in northern New Jersey where towns meld together, and block parties and neighborhood garage sales still take place. I was also greatly influenced by neighborly shows such as Little House on the Prairie. I love my role as a neighbor. I like giving a hand helping someone with a project and visiting friends on their porches for a glass of wine.

All the pictures here are from this shoot, Under the Hood - New York. A book of the show can be viewed on Blurb...

The show will be up from the beginning of May until the end of June, 2011 at:

New York Public Library - Hudson Park Branch, 66 Leroy Street, New York, NY

Viewing hours:

Monday & Wednesday 10am - 6pm; Tuesday & Thursday 10am-8pm; Friday & Saturday 1pm-5pm