Making Eye Contact: Seeing The Overlooked

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About Face, at the Bowery Mission, 132 Madison Avenue, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., through Dec. 31, 2008, free admission.

Winter in New York and many of the city’s homeless seem to disappear. On the corner of Madison Avenue and 31st Street they’re more visible than ever, thanks to “About Face,” a photo exhibit by Bill Bernstein in conjunction with the Bowery Mission.
Fifteen homeless people now have a roof over their head – but as subjects of a compelling new art exhibit, they’re not tucked away out of sight. The larger-than-life portraits — some photographs are up to five feet tall — are visible from the street through floor-to-ceiling windows on the second floor of the Christian Herald Building, the administrative headquarters of the Bowery Mission.

“These are the unseen people of our city,” says Bernstein, who more often shoots commercial work for corporate clients. “I want to see them.”

Hector. Samuel. Carolyn. James.

The close-ups capture individuals at a static moment in time, but ultimately, the images are about transformation, forcing the viewer to consider how people pass into homelessness – and perhaps out again.

Carolyn has a gold initial “C” on a chain around her neck and a silver stud in her right eyebrow.

James is a middle-aged man with brown eyes that punctuate a pink-hued baby face.

Samuel’s slightly pursed lips sit beneath eyes both blue and brown, his throat dusted with salt-and-pepper stubble.

Bernstein, whose subjects have included Paul McCartney and Virgin Atlantic chairman Richard Branson, said the large-format photos are a departure from his usual work – this time, documentation that he hopes will move viewers to take action on the issue of homelessness.

“I don’t think it’s gone away,” he said. “I just think that people aren’t thinking about it.”

When Bernstein, 57, lived in lower Manhattan in the 1990s, he would come to the Bowery Mission with friends every few months to serve dinner to people who sought refuge there. “I felt a real sense of connection,” he said, “like I was making a difference.”
That spirit motivated him to contact staff at the Bowery Mission last spring. Bernstein advertised the one-night-only photo op with flyers at the mission and set up a white backdrop and lights above the dining room.

“It wasn’t a ‘come on baby give me some love’ fashion shoot,” said Bernstein. He said the project, which has been in the works for nearly a year, was a collective effort between himself, his subjects, the Bowery Mission staff and printer Gotham Imaging, which pitched in $8,000 worth of services. He also cited the work of Kevin McCloud, a student in the Discipleship Institute, one the Bowery Mission’s three residential recovery programs (The others are a transitional center on the Lower East Side and a Women’s Center on the Upper East Side.)

McCloud’s participation in the Bowery Mission’s program includes being a maintenance man at the Christian Herald building. McCloud, 48, said he would participate in a photo shoot if given the opportunity. “If there’s anything to help [Bernstein] send a message to society, then I’m all for it.”

The images are riveting and intimate without seeming intrusive. Large-format portraits invite the viewer to consider the subject’s situation and to reconsider stereotypes of homelessness. Bernstein said the individuals who showed up for the shoot challenged his own preconceived notions. “One guy walked in with a Tom Clancy novel. Another with a newspaper. They seemed very lucid. Very together.”

“We’re just ordinary people like everyone else,” said McCloud. “We had a little bit of bad luck along the way. Some of it we’ve done to ourselves, some of it couldn’t be helped.”

Quotes inscribed around the room complement the images. “So, you’ll remember my story,” is attributed to Harry, but there’s no image of Harry on display. One wishes the text had a more direct correlation to the people pictured, making it possible to pair word and image. That’s part of Bernstein’s vision. His future plans include a coffee-table book with additional portraits and excerpts of interviews conducted by his project partner Carey Wallace, a writer and biographer whose clients include the wealthy – and now, people at the other end of the economic spectrum as well.

James Macklin, the Bowery Mission’s Director of Outreach, said he sees the photos as part of the Mission’s larger purpose — to help homeless people forge new paths, by providing short-term services like showers and a bed for the night, and longer term programs like the Discipleship Institute

Gentrification of its neighborhood notwithstanding, the Bowery Mission is still providing a needed service on Manhattan’s historic skid row. The proof? The location at 227 Bowery serves 840 meals a day and offers showers, haircuts and free medical appointments.

“I don’t have the key to determine what the future holds,” said Macklin. “We just do what we do. We’re in hope that compassion will help them make a decision to change where they are.”

Bernstein’s next assignment is a portrait of CEO at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, for the magazine Business Jet Traveler, but he hopes the portraits of the homeless will convey a message closer to his heart.

“Remember these guys … remember these issues.”

– Laura Silver