I walked inside Brooklyn’s Urban Folk Art Gallery gradually moving from piece to piece, tentatively reading each caption underneath the photos that reinforced Chris’ Faces of Addiction work that was being exhibited. Prior to my arrival, the only affect I had felt from his photographs was derived off the consistent stream of images that feed into my Flickr stream but seeing them printed, leveled and framed in person was a different experience especially since Chris himself was gracious enough to have taken the time to meet up with me at the gallery.
The more I viewed the photos, the less I thought about photography and the inescapable technical babble that we’re often consumed with when we talk about the art. You know what I’m referring to. The typical inquiries such as what camera or lens did he use and reflecting on whether our work would have as big of an impact if we invested on a similar setup. I’d be lying if I told you these weren’t questions that cross my mind but they were uncertainties I could accept not having answered because the subject matter alone superseded anything that remotely involved talking about the tools of the trade.
I had reached out to Chris a while back, inviting him to be a part of the Photographer Spotlight Series but between his day profession as a banker in New York, raising his 3 children with his wife of 27 years and venturing out to capture stories of people living with addiction in the South Bronx during ungodly hours, it became redundant to say he had very little breathing room for anything else. To top it all off, during that exact period, the New York Times had gotten wind of his assignment and so a good portion of his leisure time had been spent collaborating and dispensing material for a brilliant piece that was eventually published on February 20th, 2012 which I highly you recommend you read for a more in-depth look at Chris in action out in the Bronx.
When I asked Chris if it was a challenge to do what he normally does out in Bronx while having had a film crew and reporter shadow his moves, he couldn’t help but nod in agreeance simply because placing himself in the environment that he does is dangerous as it is but even more so when there’s outsiders tagging along.
Not sure if Chris would refer to it as an official artist statement but on his Flickr profile page, he had this very profound quote that summed up nicely the type of work he’s dedicated his time to putting together. He said “My perfect subject is someone or something who deserves attention but is not looking for it. I tend to shy away from big events or parades.” You can’t help describe his work as having a thick layer of photojournalist touch to it but to that he say’s “I post people’s stories as they tell them to me. I am not a journalist. I don’t try to verify, just listen.”
The more I chatted with Chris as we walked the confines of the gallery, the more inspired and jealous I became with how emotionally and physically close he manages to get with his subjects. This feeling became very reminiscent of what photographer Bob Croslin once said which is that “Lots of people have talent, but it’s the hard work that sets you apart.”
Street photography is fun but what Chris does extends far beyond the typical perception we have about photographers who wander the streets searching for that “Decisive Moment.” From my experience, not everyone is as willing to engage with you and tell you their story in plain day light, let alone at 2am in the morning in one of the most dangerous streets of New York and yet that’s what Chris manages to procure from mostly prostitutes and drug addicts in the Bronx. He said it took him almost a year to gain the trust of the people whom he continuously goes out to seek. It was not an every day occurrence that residents would see a tall Caucasian guy with a camera roaming the streets. Initially they would always assume he was a cop but between constantly going back and ultimately building a relation with one of the oldest and most respected prostitutes at Hunts Point, all the other addicts began regarding him as harmless because of his association with Takeesha.
Regardless of who Chris photographed, he always made it his business to go back and gift the person a photograph of themselves. Some subject he had difficulty finding again either because they wander from place to place too much or because they had been sent to jail.
After having seen Chris’ work, this is what Chase Jarvis had to say about his material, “If you’ve been using the excuse that you’re not making powerful shiznit because you’re not a full-time photographer, take a lesson from this guy.” Lessen taken from my end and hopefully anyone else can even if the photographs themselves don’t necessarily resonate with you, I strongly believe there’s still insight to be taken from this Faces of Addiction assignment.
I teased Chris a bit for not having an actual website to showcase his work since he shares 100% of it solely through Flickr and communicating through Twitter but then I thought to myself “I don’t think he needs it.” This is a prime example of that old saying that “content is king.” He could have been publishing his photographs on the most unsophisticated and plain web site ever and I still think he would’ve received the same amount of well-deserved attention he’s gleaned because it’s what he’s accomplished that holds weight.
Photography is very much like travel in that they both have this deep-rooted capacity to humble you. They make you aware that in spite of wars, division or any other social problem you can think of, we all as people go through life not knowing every joy or trial that others have had to endure. Whether you travel a lot or photograph a lot, it’s likely that your outlook in life changes at some point because you become so much aware of things and people that others would never give a second thought to acknowledge their existence.
I spent perhaps a total of 1 hour with Chris picking his brain with anything that came to mind since I failed to officially jot down any questions to ask and yet he was accommodating in answering them all. As we eventually went our own way, one piece of advice Chris gave me as he walked out of the gallery was to “find a project you care about and explore the heck out of it” which is exactly what I’ve had in mind all along.
Not that it matters much but for all you camera geeks that are still curious as to what camera he uses out on the field, it’s a Nikon D700 with a 50mm f/1.4