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Community in Germantown – a Discussion with Tieshka Smith

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July 27, 2013   ·   5 Comments

“Friends,” 2011.  “This photograph is a part of a series that I shot in 2011 of children at a home-based daycare in Germantown.  This scene, of three girls on the step, two looking in one direction with one looking in the opposite direction while one girl's hand rests on another girl's leg, is very poignant.  It has a quiet sweetness to it that I love to capture in street scenes.” - Tieshka Smith

—>Maegan visits a gallery in her neighborhood and talks with the artist about community and the importance of people in a neighborhood.–the artblog editors——————–>

I have been living in Germantown with my husband for the last 6 years.  Getting assigned to cover Tieshka Smith’s show, “The Other Side of Germantown” seemed too good to be true.  As a resident of this community, I have personally observed its struggles and triumphs.  I sat down with the artist at iMPeRFeCT Gallery to discuss her body of work on view here.

“Whimsy (Part 1),” 2013.  “This photograph and its companion, “Whimsy (Part 2),” were made at a community-wide event that was held in Vernon Park in Germantown.  I love how focused this little girl was on the fun she was having blowing bubbles and I wanted to capture that energy.” -  Tieshka Smith

“Whimsy (Part 1),” 2013. “This photograph and its companion, “Whimsy (Part 2),” were made at a community-wide event that was held in Vernon Park in Germantown. I love how focused this little girl was on the fun she was having blowing bubbles and I wanted to capture that energy.” – Tieshka Smith

The self-taught photographer

Smith is a self-taught photographer who received her first camera as a thirteenth birthday gift from her father who, as she explains it, was the de facto family photographer. Born in Chicago, Smith moved around, spending a few years in Jersey City working in the healthcare industry.  Though she had taken photographs all her life, Smith shifted away from this pastime for a while.  One day she felt the pull to resume and began shooting architecture in and around Jersey City and the Bronx; Smith then realized that her interest was more focused on people than on the buildings that they inhabited.  After an injury, a need to slow down the pace of her life became undeniable.  Smith relocated to Germantown in the spring of 2011 and, as she puts it, fell in love.

“Exasperation,” 2013.  “This photograph is part of a series I shot earlier this year of a group of young male skateboarders practicing at John B. Kelly Elementary School in Germantown.  The subject had just attempted a trick and wasn't too pleased with the outcome.  Just the emotion conveyed through his posture is what compelled me to take the shot.” - Tieshka Smith

“Exasperation,” 2013. “This photograph is part of a series I shot earlier this year of a group of young male skateboarders practicing at John B. Kelly Elementary School in Germantown. The subject had just attempted a trick and wasn’t too pleased with the outcome. Just the emotion conveyed through his posture is what compelled me to take the shot.” – Tieshka Smith

She continued her ‘slice of life’-style photography in Germantown by walking around the neighborhoods, introducing herself and taking portraits of community members.   She explains that her camera served as her introduction to the people of Germantown, with whom she made friends along the way.  Germantown is a neighborhood with a rich history; it is the birthplace of the anti-slavery movement and boasts a long tradition of tolerance, inclusion and independence.   Smith sees two sides to Germantown— historic Germantown versus “the real Germantown,” the latter of which is the focus of the show.  Germantown is a culturally and demographically diverse neighborhood.  There are pockets of affluence and pockets of economic struggle.  Smith aims to change the way people perceive those pockets of financial trouble.  It is easy to dismiss these areas as “depressed” in the general sense, but Smith sees an abundance of joy and love here, and wants to bring that aspect to the front of public observation.

Talking about community issues

“Those Eyes,” 2012.  “This photograph is part of a series of four candid images I made at a community-wide event held at the old Germantown Settlement campus in southwest Germantown.  I was drawn to the seriousness of the subject's gaze, and I am oftentimes struck by how serious some children in Germantown are.  Compositionally speaking, the subject being bracketed by the tiny shoe of the child being held and the sandal of the young person on the bike brings together snippets of life that I see in the neighborhood all the time.”  - Tieshka Smith

“Those Eyes,” 2012. “This photograph is part of a series of four candid images I made at a community-wide event held at the old Germantown Settlement campus in southwest Germantown. I was drawn to the seriousness of the subject’s gaze, and I am oftentimes struck by how serious some children in Germantown are. Compositionally speaking, the subject being bracketed by the tiny shoe of the child being held and the sandal of the young person on the bike brings together snippets of life that I see in the neighborhood all the time.” – Tieshka Smith

We talked of issues that affect urban communities; Smith says that she wants her work to serve as a touchstone for discussions on race, class and space.  She wants people to consider: who claims space, who owns space, and what these relationships with space entail for the community.  We also talked about the role of churches in urban areas, and the outreach given to those struggling with addiction and homelessness.  Smith feels that if there is no capacity to serve in a professional way it becomes impossible to get anything done.  While churches do function as gathering places for the community and provide outreach to those in need, it isn’t enough.  Locals need to take a stand and (re)claim the community; the only way that change will come to Germantown is if the residents themselves decide to work together in pursuit of it.

Street photography

 “Iron Grip,” 2012.  “This was one of those moments where the mother was off in her own world but completely aware of her hand around her daughter's wrist, while the daughter was staring intently at me and the camera, probably wondering why the aperture of the lens was opening and closing so quickly.” - Tieshka Smith

“Iron Grip,” 2012. “This was one of those moments where the mother was off in her own world but completely aware of her hand around her daughter’s wrist, while the daughter was staring intently at me and the camera, probably wondering why the aperture of the lens was opening and closing so quickly.” – Tieshka Smith

In “Iron Grip,” Smith showcases her classic street-photography approach.  Of her tactics, Smith says, “Sometimes I will post up at a busy spot in Germantown and just watch and observe passersby, oftentimes for hours.  Usually adults completely ignore me; but I find that children and young people are very curious to know what I’m doing and are keenly aware of my camera.”  Of “Joy,” Smith says, “This is one of those images that I’m glad I was ready for.  It happened so fast that I was fearful afterwards that I didn’t get the shot.  Sometimes I shoot from the hip, as to go undetected by a subject and to preserve the integrity and candor of an unfolding scene.”  In “Iron Grip,” the tension in the mother’s grip around her child’s arm is tense and protective.  In “Joy,” Smith’s selective use of color highlights the composition of the photo and emphasizes its cheerful title.  The gleeful energy of the young girl is almost palpable.

While walking around the space, I enjoyed seeing the different interactions between camera/ photographer and subject.  Smith’s work says a lot about interaction and works to build new mindsets and values concerning urban communities.

The photographer’s open studio project at the gallery

“Joy,” 2012.  “This little girl was running down the sidewalk in her pretty dress and bright yellow balloon in her hand and I didn't want to miss the moment but I also didn't want to frame the shot using my viewfinder which would have probably stopped her dead in her tracks (and perhaps caused her some trouble, since she was running with some kind of stick in her mouth).  She didn't even notice.” - Tieshka Smith

“Joy,” 2012. “This little girl was running down the sidewalk in her pretty dress and bright yellow balloon in her hand and I didn’t want to miss the moment but I also didn’t want to frame the shot using my viewfinder which would have probably stopped her dead in her tracks (and perhaps caused her some trouble, since she was running with some kind of stick in her mouth). She didn’t even notice.” – Tieshka Smith

Smith wants to make Germantown a culturally- and artistically-richer place.  To do this, she feels that we need to establish a balance between the work put in and the tough economic development that is needed in Germantown.  Going along with this idea, Smith is hosting an “open studio” of sorts taking place every Saturday for the duration of the show.  She is inviting members of the community to see the work and then have their portraits taken in front of it as a statement about unity.  After the interview, my husband and I posed in front of Smith’s work.  We are, after all, in this together.

The author and her husband posed in front of Smith’s work.  Photo taken by Tieshka Smith.

The author and her husband posed in front of Smith’s work. Photo taken by Tieshka Smith.

In addition, iMPeRFeCT Gallery is hosting a slew of events while the show is up.  For example, this past Saturday the gallery invited a number of poets and musicians to perform in the space, highlighting Smith’s work.  iMPeRFeCT and Smith are both working hard to bring the community together, intermingling art with fellowship.

“Friends,” 2011.  “This photograph is a part of a series that I shot in 2011 of children at a home-based daycare in Germantown.  This scene, of three girls on the step, two looking in one direction with one looking in the opposite direction while one girl's hand rests on another girl's leg, is very poignant.  It has a quiet sweetness to it that I love to capture in street scenes.” - Tieshka Smith

“Friends,” 2011. “This photograph is a part of a series that I shot in 2011 of children at a home-based daycare in Germantown. This scene, of three girls on the step, two looking in one direction with one looking in the opposite direction while one girl’s hand rests on another girl’s leg, is very poignant. It has a quiet sweetness to it that I love to capture in street scenes.” – Tieshka Smith

“The Other Side of Germantown” will be on display until August 3, 2013.   On August 3rd, iMPeRFeCT’s monthly fundraiser “The Last Supper” will take place.  Event details will be announced at a later time.  More information can be found on the gallery’s Facebook page.

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5 Responses to “Community in Germantown – a Discussion with Tieshka Smith”

  1. Dick Ranck says:

    The last picture, of the three little girls is particularly compelling and sweet. Never mind that the print is equal to the narrative.
    I like this photographer’s work.
    I’m not sure what self taught means in this case, as her mind is sharp and sophisticated. Media new to the hand might be more to the point.

  2. Maegan, thank you so much for writing this coherent and thoughtful piece about the exhibit, iMPeRFeCT Gallery and Germantown.

  3. renny Molenaar says:

    Thank you Megan, thank you Tieshka, Go Germantown.

  4. Elisabethn Nickles says:

    Congratulations Tieshka- Amazing!

  5. [...] Maegan Arthurs of theartblog.org, and a fellow Germantown resident, covered the exhibit as well.  The story appeared on the website on July 28th and you can read it here. [...]

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