New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Rest in Peace

Photographing Woodlawn
R. Wayne Parsons
Romeo Lombardi, “Nude Series” 2010

One of the interesting aspects of this job is the opportunity it affords to travel outside the dominant photo ghetto (Chelsea, ICP, major Manhattan museums) to destinations in other boroughs where photographs are on display. Some months ago I made my first and only trip (thus far) to Woodlawn cemetery in the North Bronx, only to marvel at its beauty and tranquility. Not surprisingly, my curiosity was peaked when I saw the listing in the New York Photo Review of an exhibition at the Lehman College Art Gallery titled “Photographing Woodlawn”. Granted, Lehman College is not high on anyone’s list of 100 places to see before you die, but it does have its charms, most notably a few very attractive 1930s buildings in a simplified gothic style.

A few blocks down the road is the Kingsbridge Armory, another spectacular example of armory architecture. The AIA Guide says that this is the largest armory in the world and refers to it as “The Carcassonne of the Bronx”, though I doubt that many residents of the surrounding neighborhood call it that. At present this armory is fenced off and more or less abandoned with no firm plans as to what to do with it. Anything but demolition!

A few blocks more takes you to the James F. Peters VA hospital. I was totally unfamiliar with this facility, the second largest VA hospital in the country. It is imposing, in part because it stands on one of the highest points in New York City, but also because the site effectively highlights its two attractive modern buildings; the location is also significant for its strategic importance during the Revolutionary War.

Further down Kingsbridge Road you come to Exterior Street. The most interesting thing about Exterior Street is its name. And I can’t answer the logical follow-up question as to where one might find Interior Street.

But my brief excursion to this corner of the Bronx was successful in proving once more the tremendous variety and vitality of New York and its many neighborhoods. The area is alive with small service establishments, people congregating at street corners, traffic (both pedestrian and motorized), etc. The architecture is standard vernacular, and notably heterogeneous.

But you can’t make it up: the neighborhood succeeds largely because it is NOT planned. We have learned after a great deal of experimentation that it is very difficult for planners to capture the spontaneity that naturally arises when developers and architects are left to do what they do best without a surfeit of strictures. For proof of this assertion, go almost any planned community or housing project. While any of them can provide the basis for a good life, few convey the vibrancy and excitement of a typical New York neighborhood.

 by unidentified photographer.
Ira Merrit, Transcendental, 2010

Oops, almost forgot: the photo exhibition. On display are 37 prints by 26 photographers. The show is a joint project by The Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery and the Lehman College Art Gallery. The latter issued an open call to photographers to participate, and the curator’s choices are in the gallery. You won’t confuse these images with anything at MoMA, the Met, or the Whitney; no conceptual dilemmas here. These are straightforward documents of what you will find at Woodlawn: trees, mortuary sculpture, mausoleums, etc. Most are in color, most are pleasing to look at, and they don’t require words such as “juxtapose,” “subvert,” or “recontextualize” to appreciate. The closest we get to intellectualizing is the obvious symbolism to be found in a picture of a broken and toppled obelisk by Adam Karliner titled “Broken Memories,” or an image titled “Fallen” (Rey Santiago) of a very ratty looking American flag lying in the grass. Among my favorites are two closely cropped B/W images by Romeo Lombardi of faces of memorial statuary; the lichens clinging to the stone effectively convey what time does to all of us. My only quarrel with this work is the choice of what in this context can only be seen as an inappropriate title: “Nude Series”.

If you are looking for an excuse to abandon your usual haunts, this show is one. But in all candor I suggest that a trip to nearby Woodlawn Cemetery itself will be more rewarding.

Photographing Woodlawn

Lehman College Art Gallery
250 Bedford Park Blvd W
Bronx         Map

718 960 8731

Tuesday, September 21 to
Wednesday, December 15, 2010