State of the Arts

S39 E1 | FULL EPISODE

State of the Arts: Photography and Place: November 2020

Photographer Todd R. Darling on the past and present of Paterson, New Jersey; artist and activist LaToya Ruby Frazier photographs her family and hometown, the old steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania; and Helen M. Stummer on a troubled neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey in the 1980s. State of the Arts profiles three photographers with compelling visions of places holding deep meaning for them.

AIRED: November 14, 2020 | 0:26:47
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TRANSCRIPT

Frazier: ...me going over the commercial...

Narrator: Three photographers

see the unique beauty and tragedy

of three American cities.

♪♪

Stummer: I would always drive home angry. Always.

Narrator: Helen M. Stummer spent 40 years

photographing people and places

affected by poverty, racism, and oppression.

In the 1980s, her focus was on Newark's Central Ward.

Stummer: I was angry because people had so little

and suburban people had so much,

but there wasn't a bridge between the two,

and I was hoping to actually build a bridge between the two

so people -- so it wouldn't be so

"nothing and everything."

And so I would come home feeling angry about that.

♪♪

Frazier: You know, I was born in 1982 in Braddock, Pennsylvania,

and at that year, at that very moment,

Braddock was abandoned by the government and by the state.

There was no funding or support for the community.

Narrator: LaToya Ruby Frazier

is an internationally recognized photographer

and a passionate advocate for social justice.

It all began in her hometown of Braddock.

Frazier: We were demonized

as just bad, poor, Black drug addicts.

It was just every stereotype you could think of

is all I grew up seeing in the media.

♪♪

To counter what I have always saw in the media,

it became important for me to shoot

what I was really experiencing.

Whether it was good or bad was irrelevant.

It's me shooting it from living in it,

walking in it, dealing with it.

♪♪

Darling: Paterson faces a lot of significant social challenges.

They, you know, struggle with poverty, violence,

drug addiction.

That being said, you know,

it has incredible immigrant communities.

It has some of the best food in North Jersey.

Narrator: Todd R. Darling grew up

near the embattled city of Paterson

and was always drawn to it.

Now he's created a complex portrait

of America's first planned industrial city,

famous for the power provided by its falls.

Darling: It's full of its own kind of unique idiosyncrasies

rooted in this kind of really deep

American historical past.

Narrator: Photographers making art

and social commentary...

coming up next on "State of the Arts."

♪♪

Announcer: The New Jersey State Council on the Arts,

encouraging excellence and public engagement in the arts

since 1966,

is proud to co-produce "State of the Arts"

with Stockton University.

Additional support is provided by

the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

and these friends of "State of the Arts."

♪♪

♪♪

Darling: Paterson had a reputation.

You know, kind of growing up, it's this place that, you know,

you're not supposed to go, right?

It's considered an unsafe place, I guess.

But, you know, as we got older and we got old enough

to kind of, you know, ride bikes and eventually drive,

you know, we would go down to Paterson.

Narrator: Todd Darling grew up in Wayne,

just outside of Paterson, New Jersey.

Darling: Like a lot of suburban White kids,

we would, you know, buy drugs and go underage drinking

and, you know, do -- kind of get into trouble,

do all the things that you weren't supposed to do.

Narrator: Todd moved on.

He went into the restaurant world,

eventually moving to Hong Kong,

where he started his own business.

Todd was already taking pictures for himself,

but in 2014 when democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong,

news organizations, includingTime magazine,

began to buy his photographs.

Todd decided to follow a new calling.

Darling: I've had a previous career as a businessman

and as a restaurateur.

It's something that I still continue to do,

but ultimately I was burned out

on the business aspect of the restaurant business,

which I love the creativity that comes from that,

but as the business grew, it became more about office work,

which is not me, and so I very much like to be

out doing something, making things.

And the restaurant business, like photography,

is also a craft.

Narrator: So Todd worked on his new craft.

He completed a documentary program

at the International Center of Photography in New York.

And now it's his project on Paterson

that's keeping him here, commuting for weeks at a time

between New Jersey and Hong Kong

where his business and his wife and children remain.

Darling: Maybe it was because I had lived

out of the States for so long.

It really caught my attention

that, you know, so much violence was going on

so close to the home where I was raised.

Narrator: At first, Todd was thinking

about documenting gun culture in Paterson.

Darling: However, as I began to research the city,

as I was just getting started on the project,

I read a book of poems by William Carlos Williams,

who is this very well-known poet

who penned this beautiful long-form poem on Paterson.

It was broken up into five books

over a number of years in the mid-20th century.

And, so, with kind of those poems in the back of my head,

I began to, like, pick different parts of the city.

For example, one day, I would choose

the river above the falls, and then the next day,

I'd go and photograph the river below the falls,

and then I'd photograph the falls.

And then I'd photograph a mill,

and then I'd photograph the downtown

and the people in the streets, and I'd spend a week

just photographing portraits of people walking down the streets.

This is a part of the poem from the first book of poems

by William Carlos Williams.

"Half the river red, half steaming purple.

From the factory vents spewed out hot

swirling, bubbling, the dead bank shining mud.

What can he think else

along the gravel of the ravished park

torn by the wild workers' children's

tearing up the grass, kicking, screaming?

A chemistry corollary to academic misuse

which the theorem with accuracy accurately misses.

He thinks, their mouths eating and kissing,

spitting and sucking, speaking.

a partitype of five.

He thinks, two eyes, nothing escapes them.

Neither the convolutions of the sexual orchid

hedged by fern and honey smells

to the last hair of the consent of the dying.

And silk spins from the hot drums

to a music of pathetic souvenirs.

A comb and a nail file in an imitation leather case."

♪♪

Paterson, down the hill from where I grew up,

is like many cities in America today,

facing a severe drug epidemic.

But Paterson is unique in that

it was founded in 1792 by Alexander Hamilton

as America's first planned industrial city.

Narrator: Todd's making a film about Paterson,

working on a book of photographs,

and collecting all kinds of historical material.

Darling: Paterson faces a lot of significant social challenges.

They, you know, struggle

with poverty, violence, drug addiction.

That being said, you know,

it has incredible immigrant communities.

It has some of the best food in North Jersey.

It's full of its own kind of unique idiosyncrasies

rooted in this kind of

really deep American historical past.

♪♪

Living so close to it, I never understood

how kind of rich that history was.

Narrator: An offshoot of his Paterson documentary project

is a series Todd calls "The Grassroots of Hip-Hop."

Darling: All right. I think we got it, bro.

Thank you, man. I appreciate it.

I really wanted a way to connect with young people.

I'm gonna start editing them.

I'll send you a few digital ones for you to use for Instagram.

And hip-hop music was something that I loved growing up.

I still love it now.

Man: ♪ Please don't get me..."

Darling: I make these prints,

and then they actually write lyrics

or significant words that kind of describe themselves

or describe an aspect of their life

or their neighborhood on the prints themselves.

Narrator: Photographer Todd Darling

is fascinated by the city and people of Paterson,

as was William Carlos Williams, his inspiration.

Darling: A statement by William Carlos Williams

about the poem "Paterson," May 31, 1951.

"I deliberately selected Paterson as my reality.

My own suburb was not distinguished

or varied enough for my purpose.

There were other possibilities, but Paterson topped them."

♪♪

♪♪

Narrator: In 2015, LaToya Ruby Frazier

won the MacArthur Genius Grant.

In 2020, she photographed Breonna Taylor's family

forVanity Fair.

But in 2012,

when "State of the Arts" caught up with her,

LaToya was one of the youngest artists

featured in the Whitney Biennial.

Sanders: You know, as we were looking at each medium

that we would address in the show --

painting, sculpture, photography --

in photography, she really stands out

as a young practitioner who's dealing with

the sort of politics of image-making,

the kind of aesthetics and value

of image-making and portraiture,

but also the possibility for social engagement,

and she inherits and understands the history of that,

but she has a very fresh approach, as well.

Frazier: Currently, I teach what's called Photo 1B

in the curriculum.

Photo 1B is really teaching the students

technically how to shoot with a 4x5 camera,

and I get to teach these very intimate classes

to really show them how to physically shoot with a 4x5

and then how to process it by hand.

But does everyone see how this looks like

that could actually be a mirror, the whole entire frame?

And then there's the mirror reflection within it.

What led to me in taking up photography

was the first time that I had to take my Photo 1 course

at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

I made this portrait of a younger cousin of mine

on the side of the house, and I put it up for crit,

and the teacher looked at me and was just like,

"You need to change your major."

So, those are the little tweaks that would change it.

I immediately latched onto the FSA

when I encountered my first image

of Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother."

And I remember just quietly sitting there

looking at the image thinking,

"Well, I know it's an iconic image,

but what's the lady's name in the photograph?"

And no one ever talked about her and her name.

It made me become very sensitive to subjectivity

and the personal

and a person being able to represent themselves.

You know, I was born in 1982 in Braddock, Pennsylvania,

and at that year, at that very moment,

Braddock was abandoned by the government and by the state.

There was no funding or support for the community.

They allowed it to fall apart because of, you know,

global economy and the steel industries closing

and White flight to suburbs

and the redlining of African-Americans

or anyone that they deemed not worthy

to move into these suburbs and new shopping areas.

We were all redlined there.

♪♪

It was always written about as the ghost town

and there's no one there, or we were demonized

as just bad, poor, Black drug addicts.

It was just every stereotype you can think of

is all I grew up seeing in the media.

♪♪

To counter what I have always saw in the media,

it became important for me to shoot

what I was really experiencing.

Whether it was good or bad was irrelevant.

It's me shooting it from living in it,

walking in it, dealing with it,

witnessing the loss of my family.

And my mom immediately latched onto it

and wanted me to go to different places with her with the camera.

And then, of course, not even within a year,

she was already grabbing the camera

trying to shoot pictures of me or direct shots.

♪♪

So I started thinking and saying to her,

"Well, what if we started making our portraits

of each other come to life?"

You know, and what's the difference

between seeing the images in this very aestheticized

black-and-white gelatin silver print

versus seeing them and moving real time

and seeing us in the flesh and what happens when you put

the two of those mediums next to each other.

So it became me also analyzing and studying the medium

and the history of both the still photograph

and the moving image, as well as me

wanting to make these breathing photographs.

♪♪

Sanders: You know, she has a great charisma,

and so I think she knows how to instrumentalize that

both in live scenario and film scenario and in photos,

so, to me, it's all part of

a kind of broader dialogue for the work.

Frazier: For the Whitney Biennial,

in addition to me having the photo lithographs

and the gelatin silver prints in the show,

I'm also going to be doing a performance in May,

which is a continuation of me really interrogating

and questioning the urban-pioneer ideology

that has been branded on Braddock

through the 2010 Levi ad campaign.

So, yet again, people have been erased,

and now we have the superficial brand

of the so-called "urban pioneer"

that has now come to revitalize Braddock

after we've been abandoned since Reagan.

Man: I believe that even though...

Frazier: Damian is -- His work has always been very political.

He's an amazing video artist,

and he's an amazing sound composer and musician.

I decided to do a collaboration with him,

as well as with Martha Rosler, who just retired here,

who's worked here for many years,

who taught a lot about art and politics.

And Tony Buba, who is the great

documentary filmmaker of Braddock.

He's made over dozens of films

on the crash of the steel industry

and the impact that it had on the people.

And so Damian, Martha, Tony, and I

are going to do this performance narrative

over all this video and sound footage

that deals with me really deconstructing

what I view as the myth of the urban pioneer.

Yeah. I mean, this footage is mind-blowing.

Catera: What about the other footage that we were looking at

of the hospital being torn down?

Frazier: The footage that I have of it?

Catera: No. Also Tony's.

Oh, here it is right here. This has to be of use.

Frazier: Yeah, I think that's, like,

the way that it pretty much ended,

or this would be what would lead up to me

going over the commercial to really expose how...

Catera: Yeah. Frazier: ...superficial

and insidious it is.

I mean, this is such a stark...

Catera: I think it shows that there is a negative impact

of some of these things such as gentrification,

such as our transition into a post-industrial economy,

that is often overlooked,

and I think that it tells a story

that is not being told.

♪♪

Sanders: You know, it speaks to urban revitalization

in a certain way and kind of, like, repopulating

the center of a town with artists

and all these things that we take as potentially positive,

and cities look to do this kind of thing,

but she's careful to, like,

really split hairs and parse out,

what are the real underlying ramifications?

And this is super-complicated, and it's not --

There's not a clear right and wrong,

and in her work, she allows for the multiple perspectives,

but she's very clear about how she sees it.

She's able to kind of hybridize two strains in photography,

like a more beautiful abstract staged photograph

but also the possibilities

for kind of political and narrative engagement.

She's re-entered her grandfather's house

that had been, you know --

since he had passed away, had been non-occupied,

and she got back into the house

and then made self-portraits of herself

in his clothing, in his blankets,

you know, in his space.

You know, her work embodies this history

of documentary photography,

photography that articulates social conditions,

that articulates the reality of working people,

but at the same time, she's very well-read

and embedded in a dialogue coming out of conceptual art.

Frazier: My concerns as an artist

are not popular concerns.

For the most part, I'm a witness.

You know?

♪♪

♪♪

Narrator: In our last story, we meet an artist

who found herself irresistibly drawn

to scenes of childhood and neglect.

For Helen M. Stummer,

It's been the journey of a lifetime.

♪♪

♪♪

Stummer: The big moment came --

I can still remember it, like, now --

that I looked out at the scene,

and it was one burned-out building after another,

cars are bumper-to-bumper on this one-way street,

and police cars with sirens,

and people filled the sidewalks.

And the people were laughing, arguing, yelling.

And children were playing in these rubble-filled lots.

And I said, "Wow! This is chaotic!

[Chuckling] This is really something."

Narrator: That was 1977

in New York on the Lower East Side.

Helen M. Stummer was about to become a photographer,

although she didn't know it yet.

She'd already had quite a life.

Pregnant at 15, married and divorced twice,

and now back to college in her 30s

where she was taking art classes.

Photography, she thought, would help with her paintings.

But East 6th Street

and the people there became her focus.

Stummer: I didn't have a clue until recently --

really, no, no, no --

that this scene and this chaos

was connected with my whole remembrance of growing up.

Narrator: Helen tells her story

in "Risking Life and Lens: A Photographic Memoir,"

published by Temple University Press.

Stummer: My gut wanted to document my growing up.

My brain didn't know anything. It just went along.

It's -- I go along with my gut. I always have.

So all my pictures, really, are self-portraits.

They're metaphors for my own growing up.

Narrator: You learn that Helen's childhood wasn't happy.

Now she sees how it's connected

with the people and places she photographed over the years.

Stummer: They're economically deprived.

It's money.

I grew up in a --

what I call an emotionally deprived environment.

I mean, we had a nice house. It was a good area.

Nice house. Nice furniture.

But -- [ Sighs ]

It was emotionally deprived.

And emotional deprivation is much more invisible.

Economic deprivation is much more visible.

♪♪

So a lot of my pictures

reflect children being loved, being held,

caring pictures.

You know, I love that. I still love that.

When I see somebody caring for something --

I don't care if it's a cat or a dog.

I don't care what it is.

I respond. I love it. There's still that, you know --

I long for that.

And I love the way children play

and how they, you know,

overcome or rise above their environment.

Look at the little fork here, little fork there.

They're playing. Real playing. And they're intent.

Narrator: But the environments were chaotic and dangerous,

and Helen couldn't ignore this.

She tried to help, always,

bringing food and clothes, making calls,

but mostly by taking pictures.

Eventually, she earned her master's degree

in visual sociology.

Kleit: By merely identifying a problem,

you are taking sides.

And going back to the roots of sociology,

people like Jacob Riis,

they weren't going into tenements

just to portray the way people were living.

They were -- They had a prescriptive mission.

They wanted things to not be so miserable.

The fact that she felt that way and the fact

that she felt invested and wanted change

puts her in the greatest tradition of sociology.

Narrator: Helen's photographs now show history, as well.

East 6th Street has been gentrified,

and even Newark's Central Ward,

where she took pictures for over 30 years, has changed.

She first found herself there

when she took a wrong turn one day

on her way to an appointment.

Stummer: Instead of making a left turn,

I made a right turn by mistake and ended up in Newark.

And I'm driving around, and I was saying,

"What am I doing on East 6th Street anyway?

Because this is worse than East 6th Street.

This is really -- This is just as bad,

and I don't have to pay for the tolls,

and it's easier to drive to."

So I drove around Newark

for a couple of years, maybe even three years,

before I found places

that I felt attracted to or pulled toward or something.

And I finally did find that.

Building 322 on Irvine Turner Boulevard.

People said don't go up there

because it's really one of the worst buildings in Newark.

There's dope. There's prostitution.

There's all kinds of things.

There's a lot of muggings going on there.

I'm scared, you know?

But I kept at it because I'm persistent.

Narrator: During these years, Helen was teaching

in high schools and college.

She and her third husband, a professor at Kean University,

lived in Metuchen, New Jersey, a comfortable suburb

just a short commute

to Irvine Turner Boulevard in Newark.

Stummer: I would always drive home angry. Always.

I was angry because people had so little

and suburban people had so much.

There wasn't a bridge between the two,

and I was hoping to actually build a bridge between the two

so people -- so it wouldn't be so

"nothing and everything."

And so I would come home feeling angry about that...

and looking around my neighborhood and say,

"I don't think people really appreciate what they have."

♪♪

Kleit: What you see is someone who is learning and growing

while she is capturing these moments on streets,

these moments in people's apartments and neighborhoods,

capturing the growth of other people around her,

parents and children, while she herself is developing

as a scholar and as a photographer.

Stummer: Since I haven't been able to photograph

for many years now because of my --

I had some broken spine bones --

that's why I started painting again

because it at least gets me

in touch with the creative part of me.

I'm always searching. I'm learning.

I'm always trying to find an answer.

And I don't know what it is. It's elusive. It really is.

I think people just have become more aware.

They need to become aware of different worlds,

of different places, of different environments

just to educate themselves, to know,

and to share, for goodness' sakes.

♪♪

So I would love my work just so people become aware

and do something, you know?

Shake up these politicians. Don't be afraid of them.

They're only there because we allowed them to be there.

I mean, really, we have a lot of power.

Now, we need to use it.

♪♪

Narrator: That's it for this episode of "State of the Arts."

To see more or to share a story, visit our website.

Thanks for watching.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

Announcer: The New Jersey State Council on the Arts,

encouraging excellence and public engagement in the arts

since 1966,

is proud to co-produce "State of the Arts"

with Stockton University.

Additional support is provided by

the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

and these friends of "State of the Arts."

♪♪