EMULSIVE | Aug 8, 2018 | 5
Featured project: Focusing a lens on the mind and heart of a city – by Joe Longobardi
Street photography is a mercurial practice of ritual, patience, and spending endless hours with your own thoughts as you stalk a city’s sidewalks. It is focusing on life in motion! It is the practice of seeking out something that may or may not happen. Taking photographs becomes a way of life; a way of seeing, asking questions and looking for answers. Patterns emerge only to be replaced by a new chapter of street life.
By adding an intent to a body of work, what could have been a collection of disjointed images now becomes a more cohesive documentary—focused, and with a solid narrative.
The genesis of this project began approximately ten years earlier and did not come to completion until 2017. The work focuses on the burgeoning bohemian mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina. As with many American cities, Asheville has undergone a new phase of gentrification that first began in the late 1970’s as part of a campaign to revive the city’s downtown economy. The unfortunate trade-off was the dismantling and partitioning of largely African-American communities and neighborhood businesses. This latest incarnation to revive and rebuild Asheville gradually began in the 1990’s, continuing until the slow down of The Great Recession of 2007 and 2008. As the city gradually began to recover, rebuilding eventually metamorphosed into unchecked development. Realizing that much of the cultural climate and familiarity that I understood to be the last of old Asheville would eventually be but a memory, in 2007 I began a conscious effort to photograph the immediate downtown area.
When putting together an ongoing project based on street photography, it is difficult to know how the work will evolve. Beginning with a malleable idea, a project will take on a very organic process. Over time it progresses into a more definitive narrative that, with enough discipline, does not radically stray from the original intent.
From the onset, I had always envisioned my photos as part of a series of books. I released my first book of street photography in 2014 entitled Urban Photography From the Streets Of A Bohemian Mountain Town. The book focuses on Asheville street performers and the city’s unique mix of Appalachian, Bohemian, and urban culture. The project underscores the personae we wish to show the world and how art and life are reflections of one another. The book accompanied an exhibition held that same year. This project was shot entirely on digital affording me the ease of curating and editing images that would eventually appear in the book.
My decision to choose film for my next project served several purposes. For one, it afforded me a certain aesthetic that I never felt I could achieve with a digital camera. And in contrast to modern digital cameras, it forced me to take a more disciplined and conservative approach to taking photos as you are limited to approximately thirty-six images to a role of 35mm film. There is also something to be said about the time test archival quality of film and silver gelatin prints. Properly cared for, they can last for several centuries before they become vulnerable to the elements. Kodak’s recent entry into blockchain is the new kid on the block in hedging bets on long-term storage. But as it stands, hard drives, compact discs and cloud-based storage have yet to prove their reliability in the long term.
This new project was more involved due to the number of photos shot over a long stretch of time, focusing on a more general and universal theme. This resulted in new two books featuring photographs taken over the last decade. The first offering from this project is Mind heart and the City. Like the concurrent exhibition of the same name, the book is a mix of black and white and color photographs. The collection focuses on a new era of gentrification that is gradually becoming a universal norm as we enter the twenty-first century. The second book, The Last Memory: Remnants and Recollections of a Street Wanderer, is a straight-up collection of street photography shot entirely on black and white film. The work is inspired by such twentieth-century luminaries as William Klein, Elliot Erwitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Diane Arbus. My inspiration for this project has been and continues to be the street photographers of the twentieth century. They were humanist photographers rooted in traditional photojournalism, interacting and documenting the human condition at its best and worst. I believe street photography to be a more honest approach to photographing people, offering as much insight about the person who took the images as the people portrayed. Even still, the resulting image is from my personal perspective, void of the linear constraints of objective photojournalism.
Because of the unpredictable nature of street photography, I had to be rather meticulous about my choice of film and how the work would eventually be printed. Kodak Tri-X for example, has very good latitude, I find this to be very forgiving should I have any issues with atypical exposures. To ensure the negatives did not suffer from careless handling, I hand-developed the black and white film myself.
This allowed me to control the quality of the negative if I knew that some of the exposures were either underexposed or overexposed, which is likely to happen when you are shooting on the quick! I have found that slightly prolonged development and gentle agitation will correct most issues, resulting in a more even development throughout the final negative. The images were then assessed as contact sheets with the culled images later printed in a traditional darkroom setting. The prints are part of a 2018 exhibition at the Emporium Gallery located at 100 S. Gay Street, Knoxville, TN 37902.
I use Kodak Portra 400 for my color photography due to it’s amazing latitude as it can be pushed and pulled a number of stops will little degradation to the final negative. I also chose Portra for its aesthetic qualities as it makes for a pleasant contrast to the black and white images.
For the exhibition Mind heart and the City and book of the same title, I chose to present the photos as a mix of color and black and white. Color evokes the more visceral aspect of the story and creates the feeling of familiarity. It allows us to experience both the beauty and the grime—the everyday dichotomies and parallels; and the abundance and disparities that exist in any city. Those images I chose to capture on black and white film offer a more cerebral interpretation of the narrative; injecting a sense of timelessness and a romanticized recollection of the past.
The final presentation of both color and monochromatic reveals at once a stark contrast where affluence and status is measured by one’s lack; and at once exposing the duality of contemporary society. The extremes of complacency and desperation adorn each face, simply weary from time, and pushed to one’s limits.
A major component of this process was to rediscover the twentieth-century humanist approach to explore and document city life and meeting people on their terms. There is a certain amount of responsibility in taking photos of strangers. You need to be honest with them, which can be a humbling experience. Most times they are fine if not obliging to be photographed; on rare occasions the reaction is outright hostile.
The majority of these photographs were taken with a 28mm lens, which requires a personal inclination to get very close to strangers in public. Interestingly, my choice of small 35mm manual film cameras also afforded me a greater ease of entry into people’s personal space. Most subjects were genuinely quite excited and accommodating to have their photo taken on film rather than digital. The result of this intimate proximity is the sense of being in the middle of the action. I am not documenting the story so much as the experience.
These photographs focus on the immediate downtown area of Asheville. As with many growing cities, it is a beacon for most cultural and political activity—it’s heart, if you will! This is the portrait of a city as captured on my daily round. The images are what I believe to be an honest portrayal of the city’s soul and mind. I consider myself very fortunate to have access to a place that continues to offer photographic opportunities usually only available in larger metropolitan areas.
Living in an area for months or years allows for more time to understand its temperament. This allows for a more casual and paced approach to discovering significant moments that speak more broadly about the people and culture rather than scores of random images hastily taken with little or no empathy.
In an age when most of our activities are under constant surveillance by cameras placed at every street corner, park, or shop, taking photographs in public is a somewhat archaic if not obsolete approach to documenting our surroundings. Still, the goal is to capture people: people caught up in their routines; people in flux; people making sense of their roles in a new society as it transitions from the twentieth century into the new millennium. The result is twofold as the process not only freezes time, but serves as a journal for one’s own experiences and perspective. The photographer is both a witness and participant in the life event.
Each city has its own movements. Larger urban environments ebb and flow on a twenty-four hour cycle. A smaller city like Asheville has a more relaxed atmosphere that picks up energy as night falls. The city’s unique blend of urban and bohemian character is concentrated in the immediate downtown area and the outlying neighborhoods. The temperament of the city’s urban center is not unlike San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the mid-1960’s, just prior to the hippy counterculture’s gradual displacement by soaring real estate prices and urban gentrification. As with many similar cities in the Deep South, Asheville is not so much an anomaly as one of a number of unique communities dotting the landscape of the United States.
I am interested in people and how they interact with their environment. This is the intrinsic nature of street photography. Some days, serendipitous; other times, gritty and jarring. The urban landscape becomes a source of allusions: everyday lives become allegorical fodder for spontaneous theater that unfolds on public display. Life is about extremes. It is at once both ugly and beautiful.
The city is a cacophony of human drama. Street performers, merchants, tourists, anarchists, the homeless—all collide to create an overlap of pathos, the whimsical, and the gentle and brutal. The sheer clutter of an urban environment only emphasizes the anthropomorphism to be found in its commercial advertisements and pop art equivalents. I interpret such images as a metaphor for a city that has outgrown its innocence, slowly being displaced by the pedantic repetition of urban life. Personal perspective becomes more complacent, if not jaded, when confronting both present and future prospects; each person striving to find and understand his and her place in the twenty-first century.
You can easily harbor a misanthropic view of people as you witness the day-to-day unraveling of human frailties. In reality, it is a reminder that we are all imperfect, whether we wish to acknowledge those flaws within ourselves or simply ignore them. You need to embrace what you see, including people’s shortcomings, or you become blind to any opportunity to capture life, both the ordinary and the sublime.
To truly appreciate the world we live in, it becomes necessary to find the balance where one taps into the collective consciousness, while simultaneously rejecting any embedded dogma that discourages us from acknowledging perspectives outside our own personal reality. By removing the societal and parochial constraints that limit our empathy for the nuances of diversity, we become aware of the beauty and poignancy that can enrich our understanding of ourselves and others.
City life can be viewed as a fragile ecosystem balancing the uneasy symbiosis of community and consumerism. As a rule, we only require the most basic needs to live. All else is driven by want and ego. These photos depict the heart and mind—the flesh and soul of a culture grappling with the modern trend of gentrification. Simultaneously, the community strives to maintain a semblance of its unique blend of bohemian, urban, and Appalachian culture that has for over a century persisted during both economic booms and financial upheaval. These outward changes are the latest iteration of ongoing shifts in cultural and ethnic diversity.
Currently there are more people residing in cities than rural areas in the US. This is in stark contrast to the mass migration from urban centers to the suburbs that began in the mid-twentieth century. Historically, urban centers have also tended towards celebrating a more secular individualism rather than the status quo.
Yet, the bohemian lifestyle in this and many growing cities is being gradually marginalized to make way for new hotels, kitschy city tours, “boutique” chain stores, and various other commercial ventures that cater to tourism dollars. This is the obvious trade-off when a city experiences an economic resurgence. The benefits of urban renewal outweigh economic downturns, decay of infrastructure, crime, and a bleak future. And the last gasp for salvation, as if on cue, always seems to be gentrification.
The people featured are both individuals and archetypes of what is to be expected in a city like Asheville. They are at once both provincial and universal, allowing us to better relate to the people and their unique circumstances. It is this paradigm and dichotomy that inspired me to engage the public rather than being a mere observer, silent on the sidelines. What I have learned is that to truly capture life, you must acknowledge and embrace it on its own terms.
These images reveal more than moments culled from everyday events, but to a degree, street theater, as I direct the viewer to visually experience what could never be conveyed in words alone. In a culture seemingly becoming more tribal and isolated, the simple gesture of interacting, and understanding the lives of people arbitrarily encountered in a public space, may be the last gasp of retaining our collective connection as one people, sharing both life experiences and the finality of time.
~ Joe Longobardi
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