Portraits highlight Camden's heroes, beautify blighted spaces
Erik James Montgomery is a portrait photographer whose project, Camden Is Bright Not Blight, brings shots of city residents to empty spaces in an attempt to show the beauty, resilience and strength of the community. Cherry Hill Courier-Post
CAMDEN — LaQuann Battle is blind, but he can see the beauty in his hometown.
The subject of a portrait by photographer Erik James Montgomery, Battle's image appears, like that of 49 other city residents, in a gold frame. Battle and all the other subjects were asked by Montgomery to complete the sentence, "Camden is ..."
Battle's answer: "Camden is vision-driven."
"Camden has a vision that a lot of people outside the city don't really see," said Battle on Wednesday, as his portrait and more than a dozen others were installed on an abandoned building on Mount Ephraim Avenue as part of Montgomery's project, "Camden Is Bright Not Blight."
"Camden is beautiful," Battle added. "It's full of amazing people, good people who do a lot of good things. It's a small city that's up and coming."
Montgomery's portraits — 50 of them — feature Camden residents of all ages, from 2-year-old Camden Hill to the city's oldest resident (for whom Montgomery is currently searching). Each one is reprinted on vinyl and will be installed on blighted and abandoned properties all over the city as part of A New View Camden, a Bloomberg Philanthropies-financed effort to bring art to illegal dump sites and bring awareness to the issue.
In all, Montgomery plans to shoot portraits of 100 Camden residents for Bright Not Blight, asking each one what the city means to them.
The project, which includes several large-scale installations and involves artists and art collectives from all over the United States, was postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 crisis.
But Montgomery, who has a studio in Camden FireWorks and lives in Pennsauken, is in the process of installing his works all over the city.
On Wednesday morning, he looked less like a fine art photographer and leader of a nonprofit foundation, and more like a tradesman: Wearing cutoff shorts, a hoodie and a tool belt, he climbed an extension ladder with a staple gun in hand and a rolled-up print in his teeth to the second story of a boarded-up, graffiti-scrawled pair of brick rowhouses in the city's Gateway section.
"The key is not to look down," he joked, as Christopher Hampton ("Camden is Unbreakable") and fellow artist William Butler ("Camden is Creative"), both portrait subjects, helped steady the ladder and perhaps Montgomery's nerves.
Working with Cooper's Ferry Partnership project manager Vedra Chandler, a city resident, Montgomery chose buildings in neighborhoods all over Camden. The houses at 850 Mount Ephraim were the largest of the five installations thus far and the first that required him to climb to a second story.
Before the installations, Montgomery would knock on neighbors' doors, he said, introducing himself and telling them about his work.
"We wanted these neighbors to feel appreciated,'' he said, calling the installations "a decorative board-up."
"That's what art does: You don't put public art in places that no one cares about. This investment shows them someone cares."
Reactions, he said, have been overwhelmingly positive, and residents are happy not only to see efforts at beautification, but also to see the artist. "People have lived here so long and been through so much, they know when you're genuine," Montgomery said.
Felix Moulier ("Camden is Us") said the installations, especially in prominent locations like Mount Ephraim Avenue — in full view of traffic going to downtown Camden from surrounding suburbs and along the PATCO Hi-Speedline — "show that there's more to Camden than people believe."
"Camden is great: It's the hub. It's the best location on the Northeast Corridor. It's the Rome of New Jersey ... all roads lead to Camden," he said as he watched Montgomery work.
Hampton, a motivational speaker who works with young people in the city, said he was "humbled" to be part of the project.
"There are things we do as we're serving that we don't realize, we don't know the impact," he said. "It means so much when people recognize that."
Bright Not Blight, he said, "is about everyday people making an everyday difference."
"You don't have to be at the top of the social or economic or political bubble; you just have to do a little every day to make the city a better place."
Tina Baker ("Camden Is Legendary") and her father Brian Phillips ("Camden Is God's Home") are among the faces gracing 850 Mount Ephraim. Baker, a Whitman Park resident, is studying criminal justice at Rutgers-Camden and is an aspiring model as well. She and Phillips are also involved with Rutgers Future Scholars.
She chose "legendary," she said, because people might not think of Camden producing greatness, but it does: She mentioned basketball star Dajuan Wagner, but Camden was also home to songwriter Leon Huff, boxer Jersey Joe Walcott and Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier.
"People all around us are legendary," she said, "and I want kids to see that more."
Jenise Rolle isn't featured among Montgomery's portraits, but the East Camden resident came out Wednesday to watch the installation because, she said, "even though we hear the phase all the time, this really is redefining the narrative" of the city.
Too often, she noted, when Camden residents see a photograph hanging on a building, it's because that person has died, often too young and often violently.
"But these photographs say they're still here, still doing good things," she said. Living in a city with so many abandoned buildings can be "disheartening," she added, but Montgomery's images "radiate the idea of hope."
"Beauty can come from brokenness," she said. "These show everyone that the city has the ability to change."
A virtual meeting of A New View Camden, in which residents can learn more about the initiative and talk about illegal dumping in their neighborhood, takes place at 6 p.m. Sept. 22. To register for the Zoom meeting, visit www.anewviewcamden.com/public-meeting-fall-2020.html. For more information on A New View Camden, visit www.anewviewcamden.com/.
To report illegal dumping in Camden, visit www.camdenreports.com/
Phaedra Trethan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden since 2015. She’s called South Jersey home since 1971. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @CP_Phaedra, or by phone at 856-486-2417.
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