This photographer’s portraits of Camden residents put the old city in a new light
In a city that has lost so much, the portraits are welcome evidence that tired narratives about faded greatness can be transcended.
The fine art photographer Erik James Montgomery’s latest project, “Camden Is Bright Not Blight,” is getting lots of attention. Freshly installed on the facades of vacant buildings by the artist himself, the dynamic, dignified, black-and-white portraits of city residents and stakeholders are also raising questions.
“I get asked, ‘Are all these people dead?’” said Montgomery. “That really makes me sad. Too often, people only see images like these if the person has passed away or is wanted by the police.
“But when people ask me that, it’s also a teachable moment,” he added. "I tell them, ‘We’re celebrating the living, rather than mourning the dead.’”
In a city that has lost so much, the portraits are welcome evidence that tired narratives about faded greatness can be transcended. The powerful images of Black, Latinx, Asian, and white faces attest to the scrappy vitality of a community that refuses to give up. And the messages selected by the subjects of the portraits are proclamations.
Camden is resilient
Camden is victorious
Camden is unbreakable
“A lot of people think Camden is what the media portrays, but the perception is not reality. Camden is more than that,” said Felix Moulier, 35, who lives in East Camden. His portrait (Camden is us) is among 13 that have transformed a forlorn trio of long-abandoned Mount Ephraim Avenue rowhouses into a local landmark. The striking assemblage can be seen from the PATCO commuter trains on the viaduct above; on the avenue below, drivers pull over to take a look or snap a photo of their own.
Like the man who did so while a reporter interviewed Montgomery recently at the site.
“I just want to get a picture of my 'hood,” the man shouted from his car window as he drove away.
"I love it! Thank you!' said Montgomery, an exuberant person of faith for whom photography is not merely a mission, but a kind of ministry.
Moments later, Sa’eed Robinson stopped by to inquire about being the subject of a portrait.
“I noticed what he [Montgomery] is doing,” said Robinson, 33, of the nearby Parkside neighborhood. He pointed to the portraits. “Look at these people! This is the face of Camden that’s beautiful!”
“I love that an eyesore has become a conversation piece,” said Sarah Bailey-Drummond, whose portrait (Camden is reinventing) is among those on Mount Ephraim. As the financial director of Parkside Business and Community in Partnership Inc., a community development organization in the neighborhood, Bailey-Drummond hopes investors will become part of the conversation, too.
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Montgomery’s portraits are among eight public art projects commissioned under a Bloomberg Philanthropies program called “A New View.” Bloomberg selected Camden and four other cities last year from among 200 nationwide that applied for grants of $1 million each. A New View Camden also will include large-scale pieces of public art at prominent locations where illegal dumping has scarred the landscape.
The pandemic has delayed construction until next spring of these big elements — including a giant cat sculpture made from the hoods of cars. But Montgomery had completed enough portraits before the coronavirus struck to mount a pop-up version of what he intends will be 100 images in all.
“I understand the power of large-scale images on abandoned buildings because of my past experiences as a graffiti artist,” said Montgomery, 48, who grew up in Essex County and moved to South Jersey in 1999. He lives in Pennsauken and maintains his studio in the Camden FireWorks gallery and art space in the city’s Waterfront South neighborhood. He also oversees a nonprofit foundation to teach photography to at-risk youth.
“I want to make sure 'Camden is Bright’ includes every demographic — every age, faith, gender … people who are battling addiction, and people who are entrepreneurs. A panoramic view of what Camden really is," he said.
"People live here. And they don’t want to be dumped on,” said Vedra Chandler, the manager of the project for the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership. The nonprofit agency partners with City Hall to build and renovate parks and make other improvements in neighborhoods across Camden, where Illegal dumping is estimated to cost the city $4 million annually.
“This project empowers residents,” said Chandler, who grew up in Camden, graduated from Harvard, and came back to the city to live and work. “Residents have the power to take control of our environment and reclaim it through art.” (A separate program called the Camden Collaborative Initiative enables city residents to anonymously report illegal dumping.)
For more than a decade, Montgomery has taught what he calls “the art and business of photography" to young city residents. He hopes his students learn to see beyond the surface of their surroundings and beyond the perceptions of others. “Camden gets dumped on not only illegally,” he said, "but verbally.”
Montgomery has found many of his “Camden is Bright" subjects through word of mouth: “It’s not six degrees of separation in Camden,” he said. "It’s one.”
Those connections included a young man named LaQuann Battle. He’s blind, but Camden is vision driven is his message. Meanwhile, the message on the portrait of a 2-year-old boy named Camden Hill — Camden is my name — is perfection.
As for Brian Phillips, he chose the message Camden is God’s home because "in the midst of everything there’s still love, hope, and faith,” said Phillips, 33. He wears a 'Heart of the City Youth Advocacy’ T-shirt in his portrait to promote his nonprofit organization. “Sometimes people who look at Camden forget it belongs to God.”
Said Rutgers-Camden senior Tina Baker, 22 (Camden is legendary): “The city is not full of monsters and animals like they say it is. In this city we have people who are creators, who make music, who make art, who make photography, and are capable of a project like this.
"The point of the portraits is to get people to look at people.”