Above: Rachel, who immigrated from Kenya in 2004
I’m not a religious guy (message me for details!), but I’ve been hired by Metaleap Creative a few times over to create cover story images for byFaith, a Presbyterian magazine they design and produce. Last year, their creative director asked me to spend some time with New City Fellowship, a Presbyterian church located in a relatively poor and neglected neighborhood on St. Louis’s near north side.
The assignment was to make portraits of the leaders and congregants at New City, which prides itself on community outreach and racial reconciliation. In famously segregated St. Louis, this is not unremarkable.
Especially after Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson in the summer of 2014, but even before, our city’s complicated race relations have been a frequent topic in the media, around the water cooler, and in my own living room. We are home to the infamous “Delmar Divide”, which refers to Delmar Boulevard, a street that for decades has bifurcated St. Louis into white and black: neighborhoods south of Delmar are 70% white; those north of Delmar are 98% black. Segregation is real around here, y’all. The Delmar dividing line also cleaves the city sharply, no coincidence, by culture and social class. Neighborhoods inside the city limits and north of Delmar are disastrously and desperately poor. Also no coincidence, New City Fellowship sits two miles north of Delmar Avenue.
Pastor Barry Henning: “My desire from the very beginning was striving for reconciliation. We were looking for God to bring reconciliation to the people of St. Louis.” See the rest of the byFaith piece, “A Place of Healing for All”, here.
* And scroll to the bottom of this blog post for a footnote on technique and 4×5 film.
* Photo geek footnote:
At the outset I had suggested capturing the assignment on 4×5 film, and I still can’t believe my good fortune that the art director agreed to it. (Thanks, Tiffany!) I brought an assistant and we went for the Sunday services, set up our gear outside the main doors and photographed people as they came out and agreed to sit for us. Sit being the operative word.
It takes a good minute to capture a decent portrait with a 4×5 Speed Graphic, but the process highlights the craftwork that (some) modern photography has all but abandoned. I’m a fan of Matthew Crawford’s book, Shop Class as Soulcraft. It’s a reappraisal of the merits of skilled manual labor, and what it means that we have lately separated thinking from doing with our hands. I was using a WWII-era aerial photography lens. It is heavy and old. But it requires skill and intention to operate, and the process is more satisfying than pointing and clicking, pointing and clicking, hundreds of nearly equivalent frames over the course of a digital shoot. (Not that there’s anything wrong with shooting digitally, mind you; I do it all the time and love its many advantages.)
That slow, deliberate process meant that I shot maybe twenty frames, total. But it’s the quality, not the quantity: the light on their faces, the colors, the skin tones. To me, they feel like paintings. In an era where manual labor is denigrated as somehow second-class, perhaps we should pay more attention to those who work with their hands. In so many arenas, that’s still where the magic happens.