“Get out of here!” marveled photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally, 57, as she filed onto the trolley behind five fourteen-year-old boys. “This is cool, huh?” Moments earlier, the boys eagerly asked Kenneally if they could take a ride. Once seated at the back, they grew nonchalant. The self-described “digital folklore artist” reached for her camera. “This better not wind up online,” one kid joked.
The trolley coursed through North Central Troy, touring the vacant, distressed buildings illumined by the Bloomberg-backed “Breathing Lights” public art project. (Though a recipient of a grant issued by Breathing Lights for a subsidiary project, Kenneally was not involved with the flagship displays, of which there are hundreds across the Capital Region.)
Kenneally and the teens enjoyed an easy rapport, born of a long history. She met one boy’s young mother, Kayla, while on assignment for The New York Times Magazine in 2002. Shortly thereafter, Kayla gave birth to the boy now across the aisle from the Brooklyn-based photographer—who witnessed (and documented) his delivery. The resulting photographs constitute a small part of the staggering assemblage of images, texts, films, and public records on display at the North Troy Peoples’ History Museum, Kenneally’s pop-up exhibit in a multi-family home across the street from the Sanctuary for Independent Media, which bought the building two years ago for $10,000. Some of the people on display once lived there.
At the center of the exhibit, a large, laminated timeline hangs from twine tacked to the ceiling. It starts with the Big Bang, freely mixing the hyperlocal (“Andi-Lynn Cavanaugh leaves Troy High School”) and national (“Wal-Mart…achieves a pre-tax profit of 8 percent”) en route to the present. Viewed on a universal timescale, Kenneally has not been in Troy long—she grew up here, impoverished and troubled, before fleeing at 17, only to return years later as a photojournalist—but her experience blunts a persistent critique, not unlike the one sometimes levied at Breathing Lights, that her work amounts to “poverty porn.”
No doubt, the images are striking. Subjects tote soda bottles, cigarettes, and guns in small, drab bedrooms. Children are never far from focus, unwitting reminders of poverty’s ceaseless iteration. In conversation, Kenneally evinces affection for the people she photographs, and she recently launched a nonprofit arts residency program, A Little Creative Class, for disadvantaged upstate youth. Nonetheless, the question of whether her commitment to showing poor people in sun and shadow is ennobling or exploitative has, in effect, become part of the work. Fans, critics, and Kenneally herself might agree: This is not hagiography.
The North Troy Peoples’ History Museum is one of eight projects backed by Troy’s Bicentennial Neighborhood Grant program. Too often, Collar City’s history—inextricable from the immigrants, women, and African-Americans who shaped labor and civil rights movements—is cast as mercantilists sipping cider in bay-windowed brownstones. That Saturday, up the street, there were tours of a manufacturer’s mansion. Downtown, posters advertised the Rensselaer County Regional Chamber of Commerce’s 34th annual Victorian Stroll. Amid this selective remembrance, Kenneally’s project seemed a necessary counterweight.
Kenneally’s response to critics follows this line of thought. The exhibit, she told The Alt over the phone in October, “takes the moral sting out of class separation, because we might actually start to realize that there is class separation.” The free museum closed early that evening, though it remains open by appointment (contact the Sanctuary) through December.
On the trolley tour, at nightfall, the boys took little initial interest in the blinking buildings. Why would they? They lived here. But then so did the tour guide—Peggy Kownack, a past city council candidate who grew up on nearby Douw Street. Gradually, she earned their attention. “This is a very historic neighborhood,” Kownack advised, “but it has been significantly disinvested in.” Factories closed, jobs left, and loans dried up—that is, to the extent loans were ever available to aspiring low-income and African-American homeowners. The trolley passed a park where children played basketball in near darkness. Where were their lights?
“Many of the vacant lots that you see were homes that friends of mine lived in when I was a teenager,” said Kownack, her voice shaky. “My friend Jerry Ford lived in that house right there that’s lit just behind us.” The boys in the back of the bus were silent. “Every tooth that you see missing, every [vacant] lot you see or every extended fence, once had a building…with families living in it,” she added.
It was a moving elegy delivered to an audience who, by and large, soon got back into their automobiles and zipped downtown or out to the suburbs. Perhaps they left with a marginally better sense of what it is like to live in North Central Troy.
At the tour’s end, Kownack shared that some community members were at first “scared” by Breathing Lights, “because they didn’t understand them.” But now, with the lights set to extinguish at the end of the month, these same residents “want to find a way to keep them on.” What’s the most empowering, least obtrusive way for those of greater means and privilege to help them do that? It’s not necessarily incumbent upon artists to furnish the answer—they’ve at least raised awareness, conjured emotions. Were those in power among the affected? If so, what now?