Review by Melanie Chapman •
“A magnum opus project spanning 14 years, UPSTATE GIRLS documents’ the troubles and triumphs of a group of friends and their extended families in upstate New York.”
For many years now, I have indulged in two great passions. One is photography, the other is what I jokingly refer to as “House Porn.” Regarding the former, I am both a photographer and an admirer of deeply invested long-term photo projects. As regards the “house porn” fetish, it involves sitting at the computer of my office job or in the comfort of my rented home in Los Angeles, and looking through real estate listings for older homes with prices so low that to my California eyes it matters not where they are actually located. The extended fantasy involves buying a fixer-upper somewhere/anywhere and starting a new life with no more financial worries, especially not about having a place to live. Of particular pleasure are the houses of Northern New York state, an area familiar since my college days spent in the Hudson Valley. Wide floor boards! Close to the river! Up and coming neighborhoods, still affordable!
Yet, my appreciation for UPSTATE GIRLS, the recently published Regan Arts book of photographs by veteran NY Times photo-journalist Brenda Ann Kenneally, by its very depth and commitment to subject matter, absolutely threatens to derail my house porn fantasies, and well it should.
UPSTATE GIRLS is a 412-page book of photographs and relevant ephemera reflecting Kenneally’s 14-year project documenting the lives of a group of working-class girls in Troy, New York. For those not familiar with Troy, it was once a booming industrial city on the banks of the Hudson river, known for shirt collar manufacturing, and credited as the home of Uncle Sam, the quintessential symbol of American patriarchy and patriotism. Like so many other cities in New York and the Eastern corridor, including Buffalo and Hudson, when the industries left (by the mid-twentieth century) in pursuit of cheaper labor off shore, so did the economy that kept these areas vibrant. Goodbye to the middle class, good luck to the working class and poor.
Originally sent to Troy in 2002 for a magazine feature in the New York Times, (“When the Man of the House is in the Big House”, January 12, 2003) Kenneally brought not only her consistent eye for detail and relaxed shooting style to the story, but in this case she brought her own personal connection to the place and the people, as she had grown up in Troy and was for a time a rather rough young girl herself. From her own lived experience, Kenneally inherently knew that generations of poverty will beat down the dreams of even the sweetest of children, many of whom rotate out of neglectful homes into the correctional system and back again. Understanding first-hand the nuances, such as how the lack of funds for childcare can perpetuate a cycle of dropouts and under-education, trapping people in a bleak life of minimum wage jobs and disability checks, Kenneally invested her time and talent in the group of teens she first encountered. Thus, began a deeply felt personal project involving frequent visits over the course of many years to document the struggles of one group of friends in Troy, and in so doing UPSTATE GIRLS offers a disconcerting yet accurate portrait of contemporary America as a whole.
Initially picking up such a thick book, I was surprised at how light weight it actually is. Yet as soon as I opened the pages and gazed at the faces of people for whom “escape” is not an option, I quickly understood that the only lightweight thing about UPSTATE GIRLS is the choice of paperback cover and newsprint quality pages. There is nothing glossy or sexy about this book, it feels as raw and unadorned as the people in Kenneally’s photographs.
One of the many facets of this project (which included a multi-media exhibition of video as well as stills) is how far beyond a traditional photo-book UPSTATE GIRLS successfully extends. Kenneally has created a masterwork which addresses head-on the social and economic history of a once thriving city, and includes timelines of the rise and fall of factory jobs, archival photographs of Troy in its glory days, and a remarkable collection of letters, report cards and scrapbook pages lovingly preserved by girls who may not understand their fated place in this downward spiral because they are too busy just trying to live.
Like a cast of characters on a long running TV series, yet thankfully the complete antithesis of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”, in UPSTATE GIRLS people come and go, some seemingly disappear, some eventually reunite. Each time you revisit UPSTATE GIRLS you are given the opportunity to follow a different story line, to trace that person’s movements in and out of the system, relocating from one basement apartment to another place down the block. It is to Kenneally’s credit as a photographer and a human being, that we are immediately drawn in to their worlds and invest in their outcomes.
Many of the girls who Kenneally initially met and photographed in 2004 soon themselves became mothers, often while still in their teens, without the involvement of the “baby daddy”, due to incarceration or other factors. Some girls find comfort in relationships with other girls and experience the same dynamics of joy and betrayal, some fear what will happen if their own father finds out about their unplanned pregnancy. Kenneally blamelessly expands her focus to include the struggles of these girls’ parents, some of whom are also incarcerated or otherwise not available to help out. Life for these people is hard, and Kenneally directs her lens in ways that make this reality undeniable.
Because Kenneally could relate to these challenging circumstances, she brings compassion instead of judgement, and her vast body of work shares with the viewer a rare opportunity to empathize with rather than gaze as an outsider on a group of “others”. The girls clearly grew comfortable with having Kenneally around, there is no other way she could have created such honest photographs. To her credit Kenneally does not seem compelled to make the viewer feel comfortable by providing resolution or some pat version of a happy ending. The success of UPSTATE GIRLS as a body of work is how thoroughly Kenneally committed to documenting the reality that essentially nothing about growing up in poverty is happy or comfortable.
On the final page of UPSTATE GIRLS, Kenneally is rightly referred to as “the Dorothea Lange of our time”. Stylistically her work seems more in alignment with that of Mary Ellen Mark’s work with Seattle street kids, the rural Pennsylvania work of Larry Fink’s Social Graces, or the often-harsh immediacy of Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency. And yet, when considering Kenneally’s approach to her subject matter, this quote from the 1930s era social justice photographer herself comes to mind: In “Photographs of a Lifetime” Ms. Lange writes: “…so often it’s just sticking around and being there, remaining there, not swooping out in a cloud of dust; sitting down on the ground with people, letting children look at your camera with their dirty grimy little hands, and putting their fingers on the lens, and you let them, because you know that if you will behave in a generous manner, you’re very apt to receive it…”. Once you have the opportunity to sit with UPSTATE GIRLS–and trust me, you will be rewarded if you allow for many sittings to take in all the historical information included, as well as the incredibly intimate and copious photographs – you will be hard pressed to dispute such a comparison.
While Lange’s most famous image Migrant Mother has the quality of a nearly posed portrait in the tradition of a classical Pieta, in Kenneally’s humanist images we see the details of chaotic lives (and sometimes deaths) presented with a frankness that could at times border on “ugly” if not documented with such matter-of-fact respect. Kitchen tables are cluttered with half eaten plates of spaghetti dinner or store-bought shared birthday cakes next to air guns and bottles of salad dressing. Prescription meds meant to address childhood hyperactivity compete for counter space with bags of chips and bottles of sugary/caffeinated Mountain Dew.
A particularly moving through-line is that of Dana and Elliot. Dana as a teen mother is seen holding her newborn in the hospital on the day she will give the child up for adoption, her direct gaze to the camera full of sadness and resignation. Two years later Dana is again photographed in a hospital with another newborn, this time she seems more mature and beautiful, hopefully a bit better prepared to bring this child home. One of the gifts of committing to a long-term project is Kenneally clearly referenced her own initial photograph of Dana when composing that second image. Though not presented directly next to each other (as some other images are, in a “Then and Now” editorial style) you will be compelled throughout UPSTATE GIRLS to go forward and back in time, to cross check which girl was dating whom when, who was their mother, their lover, their (now former) friend.
Three years into the project, casual photos of bare-chested Elliot present to the camera his prison-acquired culinary skills (chips, mayonnaise, cup-o-noodles, hot sauce). These images take on greater significance with the layout of all 24 images sequenced together, the resulting in what feels like a still-life version of a homemade You-tube video. We’ve previously seen Elliot in his earlier years and we will see him again four years later, now reunited with Dana and trying to make it as a father, a partner, a man.
Thanks to Kenneally’s commitment to document the daily lives of this group of friends and their willingness to be vulnerable in front of her camera, we witness young children grow up as if in real time, yet are powerless to swoop in and fix their many problems. Kenneally patronizes no-one, neither the viewer or her subject matter, with a feel-good happy ending. This group of girls, and their parents and children, are not benefitting from the wave of gentrification that has spread from Brooklyn through Hudson and now is changing the real estate landscape in Troy – (hence goodbye to my guilt-free indulgence of looking at “house porn”).
UPSTATE GIRLS, the book as well as the multi-media exhibition, – truly deserving of the title “Magnum Opus”- masterfully shares the efforts and the dignity with which these girls try to each somehow improve their own lives. They, and Brenda Ann Kenneally, have much to be proud about.
Photographer: Brenda Kenneally, born New York, resides New York, USA
Published by Regan Arts, copyright 2018
Foreword by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Softcover, printed in China
Cover design by Richard Ljoenes, Interior design by Alisha Petro and Richard Ljoenes