People doing their everyday jobs might not readily come to mind as a source of artistic inspiration, but students in LaGuardia Community College’s commercial photography program turned to the street vendors, furniture makers, mechanics and others who make up the fabric of Long Island City as their subjects in a brand-new exhibit, “Long Island City Works.”
LaGuardia hosted an opening reception for the show last Thursday in the college’s B-building. Hundreds of individuals attended, including members of the faculty and many of the photographers.
“What better time than now to photograph workers and have students go out and engage with the workers?” asked Scott Sternbach, director of LaGuardia’s commerical photography program and one of the project’s developers.
“The exhibition is a way for the college to recognize the workers of Long Island City at a time when the country’s economy is facing difficult times. And it was a way of providing our photography majors with the opportunity to go out into the community and make human connections with people who they otherwise would never have met,” Sternbach said.
The collection of over 100 color and black-and-white photographs represents the work of some 29 artists, including Young Kyu Park, a photography major now in his last semester at the college, who has multiple entries on display.
Among his subjects is a woman with the unlikely name China Marks, whose hair is an equally unusual shade of purple.
Marks, who lives and works in Long Island City, is herself an artist.
“I draw with an industrial sewing machine using fabric and thread,” Marks said. “Young asked if he could take my picture.”
Gazing at the result, a huge framed replica of her own image hanging prominently for all to see, she said, “It’s not what I call flattering, but it’s so fresh and contemporary. I look like a person to be reckoned with. I like that. Now I follow his work.”
Young, originally from Korea, still struggles with English but managed to explain that he had been pursuing a business career in his homeland.
“Living in New York City changed my taste,” he said. “I became interested in photography. I wanted to meet different artists. With this project, I could study their work and interpret my experience with them in my pictures.
“I feel honored by this opportunity. I appreciate that I can use my talent to please people.”
The small businesses featured in the exhibition are located in a Queens neighborhood that has long been an attractive location for industry. Today, small businesses thrive there.
According to Sternbach, the college has over 200 commercial photography majors.
“I love the panorama of Long Island City,” he said, pointing to the work of Lidiya Kan. “I love the way she intentionally staggered it,” he said, referring to the arrangement of the five individual panels that make up the piece.
Rob Ferguson, LGCC’s newly-appointed Development Officer, Corporate and Foundation Relations, who facilitates communication between the college and local businesses, was obviously taken by the exhibit.
“It makes such a compelling human story, not only for people in their work but also the role work plays in Long Island City, a brilliant perspective,” Ferguson said.
“It goes to show how many different faces there are in the community. Together, the works take on a whole new power.”
He was particularly impressed with a photograph depicting an elderly security guard and another focusing on a couple of street food vendors at their cart.
“Those two look really proud,” Ferguson said of the vendors.
“This whole display is magnificent,” said Peter Katopes, vice president for academic affairs. “This is a fun thing to do. Colleges ought to be fun places. Education gives the impetus and tools to act on your imagination.
“Long Island City was always a working class area. It’s good to see that people in this country still work and make things with their hands. It’s important that we celebrate that. If Long Island City remains the center of industry, good for us.”
LaGuardia student Daniese Betito photographed her mother, who works as the executive administrator for a local limousine company, for the exhibit. Betito likened working on the project to being part of a small business. It took “persistence and passion,” she said. “It was exhilarating being able to capture workers in their environment. You really get inside their work life.”
‘Long Island City Works’
When: Through Feb. 29, Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-10p.m., Sat 9 a.m.-5 p.m
Where: LaGuardia Community College, B-building, 3rd floor, 30-20 Thomson Ave., Long Island City