On the evenings of June 22 and 23, 2018, the Bronx Documentary Center (BDC) illuminated–literally–an outdoor stairway in the Bronx community of Claremont. This two-day festival of what has been termed “nocturnal art” consisted in transforming six areas of urban wall surrounding the stairway into “screens” onto which were projected photographs documenting this section of the South Bronx and its residents. The photographs were taken by various members of the Bronx Photo League, a group of around twenty photographers working under the auspices of the BDC and dedicated to bringing the art of documentary photography to what has been called “the poorest and the least alienated” of New York’s boroughs.
Supported by the New York Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, The City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York State Regional Economic Development Corporation, the Lincoln Center Cultural Innovation Fund, and the National Endowment for the Arts, Claremont Illuminated–as this project was titled–was an attempt to provide a means for the people and artists of the South Bronx to interact within a challenging public space so as to expand community connections and enhance public safety. Community interaction was also enhanced by providing a food tent at the bottom of the steps and transforming this expanded area into a performance venue featuring a neighborhood Gospel Choir and a teenage step team.
The following photographs document the early hours of the second evening of this community festival of “nocturnal art.”
This is the setting for the Claremont Illuminated community festival. It is, to use the local term, a Step Street. This particular Bronx Step Street replaces 169th Street between Clay Avenue (above) and Webster Avenue (below). New York City has 94 Step Streets, mostly in upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Their existence and large number is dictated by the history of New York’s urban growth and by its geology.
The Bronx grew rapidly at the end of the nineteenth-century, and even more so after 1904 when the new Borough was connected to Manhattan by subway. Steep, and mostly short, inclines were simpler to manage by what was then a mainly pedestrian population. Such inclines, were they normal roads, also would pose greater challenges to the wheeled traffic of horse-drawn wagons and early automobiles, not to mention the challenges to pedestrians during winter months.
Geology also played its part, as the bedrock of lower Manhattan, some 30-feet down in the Wall Street area and 100-feet below street level in Greenwich Village, gradually emerges in the Central Park outcrops and continues to rise as we proceed northward. This bedrock’s rising spine can be found in Northern Manhattan (think of how high up you are when visiting the Cloisters) and in the western Bronx (think of Wave Hill). The eastern Bronx, however, consisted of low peninsulas and salt marshes. And so, Step Streets were built in the Bronx to ease the traverse from the higher west to the lower east. The 169th Street Stairway is one of these.
Here we see one of the six projection areas–the topmost, western one–and the slide projector secured to the railing separating the Step Street from the Clay Avenue sidewalk. The photographs are already being projected, but it is still too light to make them out with any clarity.
The evening is still too early here, but we can see that the “illumination” of the Step Street extends beyond the projection of photographs. All the steps, and–as seen here–even the metal steps of a building’s fire exit, are illuminated by string lights. These lights were also part of the BDC project, as was extensive cleaning, pruning, and planting of the peripheral areas of the Step Street.
These two photographs picture Michael Kamber, the driving force behind this project and also the founder of the BDC. Twice a Pulitzer Prize nominated photojournalist for The New York Times, Kamber instills the values of truth, honesty and integrity in all the young people with whom he works and trains. Regarding his role as a photojournalist, he says: “I’m a crusader for information, for what I perceive to be truth….I feel that I have to push for certain truths and the dissemination of information. That’s what keeps societies free, and I think photography is part of that.”
His commitment to truth and to the health of a society also informs Claremont Illuminated. Here is how Michael justified the project to me: “We thought that, by taking the most dangerous location in the community–which the staircase is–and turning it into a vibrant and creative location, we could inspire Bronx residents and photographers to imagine a better community, for children in particular.”
Photographer Rhynna Santos took on the project of documenting the women of Claremont who regularly attended sewing classes at the William Hodson Senior Center. Her portraits show each woman modeling a dress that she designed and made.
The Hodson Senior Center is located on Webster Avenue at the bottom of the stairs and just across the street. It refers to itself as the “first senior center in the nation.” It offers a wide range of activities, prides itself on enabling disabled seniors “to adapt to their physical conditions through creativity,” and serves as a “home away from home.”
The photograph projected here on the right is by Mexican-born-and-educated Belinda Gallegos. A recent member of the Bronx Photo League, she has lived in the Bronx since 2007.
Her photograph shows members of the Claremont Healthy Village Initiative partaking in clean-up activities.
Here’s a great portrait by Trevon Blondet. I have no means to identify either the setting or the sitter, but given the picture of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the wall behind the sitter, my temptation would be to title this something like Big-hearted Women.
Photographer Adeline Lulo’s project was to document the lives of children growing up in Claremont. Adeline was born in the Bronx and continues to live and work in New York.
Photographer and Bronx resident, Adi Talwar’s project was to document the local Muslim community and, in particular, the Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim festival of the breaking of the fast, which took place this year about the middle of June. The festival date is not fixed, as it depends upon the sighting of the crescent moon. The Eid is a time of celebration. It follows the thirty days of fasting from dawn to sunset during the month of Ramadan with feasts, gift-giving and community and family gatherings.
Everything the BDC does is free, from photography classes for middle- and high-school students, to writing workshops, to major exhibitions on photography and photojournalism, and to providing continuing engagements with eminent professionals in the field from all over the world. All these activities take place in and serve a community that is part of the poorest congressional district in America.
This week, alone, the BDC has sponsored and mounted eight exhibitions in its neighborhood, seven of which have been installed in spaces outside of its own center. Titled Latin American Foto Festival, this multiple-venue show introduces us to the work of over a dozen artists from Latin America, “a hotbed of documentary photography and film.”
I encourage anyone who is curious about how the Bronx Documentary Center came to be where it is to read “7 Questions with Michael Kamber,” or James Estrin’s article, “World-Class Photojournalism, at Home in the South Bronx.” You may also look at two of my previous blog posts on specific exhibitions at the BDC: One from a show in January, 2013 on the work of six Bronx photographers, and one dating from July, 2015 on the Center in general and several of its shows.
If you think, as I do, that our country now–more than ever–needs local organizations dedicated to the virtues of truth and the values of a healthy and diverse community, go to the BDC web page and consider supporting its work as a member, a volunteer, or an intern.