In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and emphasizing the importance of being prepared for a professional world, LaGuardia Community College (LAGCC) welcomed Angie Cruz on October 31st in the E-building’s Poolside Café. Ms. Cruz, who previously visited the campus in 2017, is an Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, writer of short stories and […]
In 1994, when she ventured into the tough streets of Brooklyn, camera in hand, Regina Monfort did not realize she was beginning a nine-year odyssey into the intimate lives of the kids bound to the streets. When she concluded the project, the kids were grown or lost, though all were changed, including her. But her photographs stand as a testament to that time, the vitality of youth, regardless of circumstance, and the beauty possible in an environment where beauty is hard to come.
“Beyond Grand Street” is the result of this journey. The exhibition consists of twenty gelatin silver prints, initially produced by the Open Society Foundation’s Documentary Project as part of their annual Moving Walls exhibitions series. It has traveled to LaGuardia Community College by way of Maryland Art Place, Goucher College, Columbia University School of Social Work, and Kansas State University.
The Brooklyn neighborhood Monfort focused on was the East Williamsburg, Industrial Park. On her location choice, her artist statement speaks volumes: “I have been asked: Why are you here? Nothing is beautiful here. These photographs are my answer.”
Monfort found her passion for documentary photography while shooting in Williamsburg. “I had never done a documentary project,” she says. “As a documentary photographer, I’m not there to judge. I’m there to see the reality of life unfolding in front of my camera.”
The photographs are titled by numbers only, accompanied by captions that quote or paraphrase the subject at or around the time the picture was taken, which grants the viewer access directly into the mind of the subject at the moment of documentation.
In “Image #3,” a thirteen-year-old girl is at a playground. She shares a bench with a peer, but she is alone, looking away from him and from the camera. The caption quotes her a few years later, but we don’t need to read it to understand how the girl is feeling. The loneliness in her eyes, the hunch of her shoulders from the weight she’s carrying, tell all.
This picture is reflective of the overall impression conveyed by the exhibit. The time Monfort spent with the kids, the effort she made to understand them, ended up rewarding her with a rare closeness between photographer and subject. They opened up their personal lives and their world to her, and she treated it with the respect and tenderness such generosity deserved. Throughout the series, one is struck by how relaxed Monfort’s subjects felt around her, by the intimacy she was allowed to capture, a vulnerability usually reserved only for diaries or for best friends.
There’s Ricky, pictured standing in front of his building, protective of his home turf. In the caption, he offers his philosophy, how he “never speaks about the future beyond next week, happy to make it through another day.”
Ricardo Muniz, or “Ricky,” who had been featured in several of the exhibit’s photos, attended the exhibition and was all too willing to reminisce about the adolescence that Monfort had captured. He was sixteen years old when she began taking the photographs.
“That was the way it was back then – people hanging out on the corner – just the people from the neighborhood,” said Muniz.
The opening I attended on Thursday, April 12, in the B-Building First Floor Gallery, was a modest, relaxed affair. The crowd consisted of a couple dozen people over the course of a few hours, each person lingering for twenty minutes or half an hour. It was supposed to last from 6 to 8 PM, yet when I went back through at 10:30, the group was still there, seemingly unable to pull themselves away from the pictures, or from the people the pictures had brought together.
Muniz walked along the wall, pointing to the people he knew in each photograph and offering bits of information about how their lives had turned out.
“He’s locked up.”
“That kid’s eighteen now!” (The child in question was seven months old in the photograph he was pointing at.)
I asked Muniz what had changed in his neighborhood between the time these photographs captured and today. His answer, “Everything.”
He pointed out specific locations, including the store that provides a setting for two of the photographs, which he lived above at the time, and which is gone now.
Then he thought more about it and explained that the greatest difference is that the community captured in “Beyond Grand Street,” the one that I formed such an attachment to during the time I spent with the photographs, is gone. It was a community that had come together not through some mutual interest but, as he explained, just because these people lived in the same neighborhood. That phenomenon was the greatest thing that had been lost.
Monfort was a Professor in the Photography Department at CUNY LaGuardia Community College between 2004 and 2009. She has also taught at Pratt Institute and was a visiting instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Currently, she is based in Brooklyn, NY, and remains active in the social documentary tradition as a photo editor for FotoEvidence Press. She has also edited numerous books by award-winning documentary photographers.
“Beyond Grand Street” will remain in the 1st Floor Gallery of the B-Building through December 31st, 2018.