Down the Street: Experiencing Boston
Walk down any city street and you feel the larger city around you. Urban environments offer a unique perspective on the world. Within each city's diversity of intersections and side streets, storefronts and residences, churches, landmarks, and parks–all little corners and isolated instances of itself–the city forms a collective community of sights and sounds that comprise the nitty gritty of everyday living.
Cities are the bedrocks of civilization. In 2020, nearly 84% of all Americans lived in a city or outlying urban area. Cities give us the opportunity to mix, share culture, and create community. By their very design, they unfold as metropolitan sanctuaries of diversity and opportunity.
Stop and breathe it in. Take the time to notice the varied architecture. The mix of people. The stoops and entrances to its homes, train stations, and places of business. Cities are the continuous collision of differences. Different buildings. Different sounds. Different lived experiences.
You can tell how well a city is thriving by how well it congeals these many pieces into a sum of its own imagined culture.
That's the dynamic Bruce T. Martin's Down the Street, Random Views of Boston Neighborhoods captures. Martin's is an exhibit of still life photographs that document the different streets that run throughout each of Boston's official and unofficial neighborhoods–a somewhat fluid number that hovers around 25. But the show is bigger than that. Down the Street, Random Views of Boston Neighborhoods presents a multi-dimensional snapshot. The photos are edited together to create a dynamic panorama of each street and are presented with "found sound" recorded on that street during and sometimes after the photography. The soundscape may be passersby talking, automobiles revving, sirens blasting, or any overlapping mix of words and tones that occurred during the photo session.
Down the Street, Random Views of Boston Neighborhoods captures a microcosm of Boston's neighborhoods, allowing us to focus on its detail while presenting the full sweep of its depth. It shows us intimacy from a distance.
Seeing from the Street Level
Many photographic exposés intent on capturing place often do so by focusing on the people that inhabit that place. The street dwellers, the workers, the citizens. By focusing on individuals, the artist seeks to find hints of the overall.
Martin's Down the Street, Random Views of Boston Neighborhoods approaches it differently. The presentation steps back, showing us the space in co-existence with its inhabitants. The streets serve as the backdrop that gives its occupants form. There is no star, no one single subject matter in Martin's telling. Only the amalgam of disparity coming together. All elements remain separate; all elements embody the whole.
The show is presented as 51 unique segments that each focus on a particular street in any one of Boston's different neighborhoods. Each segment presents the details that make up the street, just as the entire compilation of all 51 segments gives us a unified definition of Boston as a whole. Down the Street, Random Views of Boston Neighborhoods widens our view of the street to see each as unique yet still a part of the city overall. The focus is on how the varied neighborhoods co-exist as one cohesive society–the City of Boston.
This contrast of grandiose scope and minute detail, mixed with the cacophony of sounds that explodes in any given streetscape, allows the viewer to step away from the presentation with a complete appreciation of the intricacy and poetry that gives a city its beat.
Each presentation is a montage of adjacent shots that when edited together create one continuous view of the street. Martin created this fluidity by shooting each shot of a single street on the same day under similar lighting conditions, using the same lens, and positioning the camera at the same street angle. He then intuitively sensed just how far to move the camera to capture the image perfectly adjacent to the shot next to it. He repeated this over and over, in some cases for the length of an entire city block or longer. Each shooting session was carefully planned with the end product in mind.
As a result, what the viewer sees first is the consistency of structure to the street. How perfectly patterned its buildings sit against the sky, mostly uniform in height and design.
Consider the segment South Boston: Pacific Street. As it begins, a car engine starts and the viewer begins a trip past a row of that most ubiquitous of Boston housing styles, the triple decker. The journey takes us down the slant of Pacific Street. Each house similar and as tall as its neighbor, and yet each reaching to a different height due to Pacific Street sloping downhill.
Our brief journey down Pacific Street highlights the similarity of form the houses share. Each house skinny enough to fit on a narrow city lot. Each offering no more square footage of living space than another. A homogeneous, working-class neighborhood with a comforting feel of familiarity for its residents.
That is one impression. The other is the physical alterations homeowners applied over the years to create distinction. No two homes painted the same. Some with structural flourishes added and enhancements made. The segment depicts a balance of independence and cohesiveness.
Dorchester: Aspinwall Road shows a more mixed urban street of 6-plexes, multi-unit colonials, and Tudor homes. As in Pacific Street, Martin has edited the stills of the homes into one cohesive progression. Yet in Aspinwall Road the street sweep grows a bit jagged with images of half-cars. Vehicles that parked and then moved between shots. It's an interesting juxtaposition of smooth panorama and jump cuts within a single frame. It adds a bit of action to an overwise serene scene. A bit of dynamism within a still life.
The audio clips likewise convert the still subject matter into something more dynamic. The ambient sounds of Down the Street, Random Views of Boston Neighborhoods can quicken or slow the mood of what we're viewing. Cars pass. The Huntington Avenue Green Line train clangs. Birds chirp. Each creates a different framework though which to view the photo array.
Other clips are snippets of conversation. Immediately our minds associate the discussion with the scene we are seeing. But listen closer, and we hear it's often just random talk that shades the visual experience, giving it new dimension.
Down the Street, Random Views of Boston Neighborhoods bathes its viewers in a meticulously structured glimpse into a random assortment of varied city life.
Martin is an architectural photographer by trade, with a keen eye for seeing how the grandiose plays in our everyday lives. He looks at what he is going to photograph and seeks out a personal bond with it. In his own words, "I look for that connection between the subject I photograph and me. I look for the shared experience that unites my vision to the subject and creates something new. That something new are the photographs that I share with my viewers, the audience."
There are really three sources of satisfaction he derives from his work. First, there's the planning, which includes everything from discovering the vision in everyday observations, and then determining how best to execute the project to achieve his desired end. Second, Martin steps into his subject for the photo shoot, applying technical skills and creative eye to make it work. The last source of satisfaction is assembling the show into a presentation worth sharing with his audience.
Structure Creates Fluidity
John Berger in his 1972 book Ways of Seeing, based on his BBC television series of the same name, said that "Images were first made to conjure up the appearance of something that was absent." How does one think of that in terms of photography? What are these images we're seeing here in Down the Street, Random Views of Boston Neighborhoods?
Some would say photography is the purest art for capturing what is there. The thing right there before my eyes, snap! I take a picture of it.
But to take this idea deeper, is there ever really any one thing right before our eyes? How do we decide what to focus on? What to block out. What is the form that attracts us? What is the emptiness around that form that creates what we see?
Seeing is never just the a priori intake of something before us. Seeing is the experience of seeing, and that involves far more of ourselves than just eyesight.
Seeing, as we so generically use the word, is the shared interaction between the viewer and the viewed. There is a school of artists who suggest that any one creative piece–movie, novel, painting–is 90% the same as a similar piece we've experienced before, and 10% experimental and new. Art is a structure in which we find familiarity and settle into the comfort of its familiarity. That's the 90% that lulls us in. It's the 10% that excites us. That's the bit of art that goes beyond the same old, same old and elevates us into a completely unique experience. When an artwork inspires, it's the 10% that we remember as the totality of our experience with it.
Down the Street, Random Views of Boston Neighborhoods does that for us. It takes a fairly mundane, everyday experience–the street where we live or work–and transforms it into a re-imagined experience. Bruce T Martin, the photographer, explains it this way. "Photographing a subject reinterprets the subject. It gives it an additional identity as a photograph, as reimagined by the photographer. Not just as a composition of this particular day, lens and lighting, but of how it can be experienced and shared."
Jim Ringel writes the Lama Rinzen novels, a series of crime mysteries wrapped inside Buddhist mysteries. Jim's first book in the series, 49 Buddhas: Lama Rinzen in the Hell Realm, has received awards for Best Visionary Fiction, Best Cross Genre Fiction, and Best Religious Fiction. The second book, Disappearances: Lama Rinzen in the Hungry Ghost Realm, is due for release in autumn, 2022. Ringel is a practicing Buddhist who lives, skis, hikes, bikes Colorado, and can be reached at www.jimringel.com.