Economics

Germantown Photo Exhibit Counters Grim Statistics With Human Faces

“Proud Mamma” Credit: Tieshka Smith

On Saturday night, up in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, local artist and Next City friend Tieshka Smith ushered in the second week of her ongoing photographic exhibit at the year-old iMPeRFeCT Gallery on Greene Street.

The exhibit, titled The Other Germantown, depicts people going about their lives in the northwesterly neighborhood’s public realm — at stores, on their stoops, on the move with their friends.

You may remember Smith from her Portraits of Brewerytown exhibit, which had a run in Next City’s old storefront space back in January. As with that prior work, Smith’s intimacy with her subjects and the direct, unpretentious quality of her street photographs allow The Other Germantown to tell the story of her adopted neighborhood, one where vibrancy and dynamism mingle with daily struggle.

The aim is for her images to counterbalance the negative reputation Germantown has earned, often unfairly, over the past few decades.

Germantown is no stranger to hardship, with a median household income of $29,850, a poverty rate of 28.2 percent and an unemployment rate of 14 percent, which is slightly higher than the city as a whole. Smith’s sensitive portraits serve as human counterpoints to the bleak stats and run-of-the-mill news reports that inform most Philadelphians about the neighborhood.

Saturday’s event brought three more artists to the table, putting poetry and music into conversation with Smith’s photography. A spoken word artist and Germantown native, who goes by Tiptoe the Urban Poet, recited work that reflected his upbringing in the area. Poet De Lantz of the Coffee After Dark open mic contributed some of his own musings, drawing inspiration from the site and audience. The night concluded with local singer-songwriter Kenny Artnsoul Lashlee.

As Lashlee wrapped up his set, Smith snapped a picture of a man waving his hand in the back of the room. His portrait, Smith explained, may find its way into her next project — a series of portraits of Germantown residents against the black-and-white backdrop of The Other Germantown. In this way the work continues to build momentum, challenging, in Smith’s words, “prevailing notions of otherness.”

When asked about her favorite work in the show, Smith scanned the room.

“‘Proud Mamma,‘” she said, indicating a photo of a mother wearing the golden yellow cap of her recently graduated son as she rests her arm around his shoulders. “I took it last year. It was just one of those joyous moments you don’t really hear about in Germantown. People ask me all the time how I chose whether to process an image in black and white or color. With this one, I knew I didn’t want to lose the yellow. It shows the bond of mother and son. And, I like the color yellow – I guess I sort of seek it out. It represents good energy, happiness.”

iMPeRFeCT Gallery sits adjacent to Maplewood Mall, a tiny, pedestrian-heavy shopping street, and is quickly becoming a transformational community programming space. Co-owner Renny Molenaar opened the gallery in June 2012 as a non-profit, after a three-year quest to establish a space for art in Germantown. As he told NewsWorks at the time, he and co-owner Rocio Cabello started out with “no money, no support, no backing. We just have our drive.”

With $2.2 million promised for a Maplewood Mall redesign, there’s opportunity for Molenaar and Cabello to build upon this emerging center for both community building and artmaking in Germantown. Smith’s exhibit represents an important step in that direction.

The Other Germantown runs until August 3 at iMPeRFeCT Gallery, 5601 Greene St., Philadelphia, Pa. Open Thursday-Saturday, 1pm-6pm.

For more about iMPeRFeCT Gallery, see the video below from our friends over at Hidden City Philadelphia.

Tags: culture, philadelphia, economic development, livability, culture & livability, public space, photography, placemaking, arts and culture, germantown