CHICAGO — Paul D’Amato’s large-scale photographs in his exhibition We Shall at the DePaul Art Museum offer a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people and urban landscapes on Chicago’s West Side. Operating in a similar mode to photographer Dawoud Bey, whose work documents and gives agency to the black experience, D’Amato chooses a range of subjects, from notorious Chicago housing project Cabrini Green to a classroom of kids, from a pregnant woman to a blank white wall littered with Mickey Mouse stickers. Every Chicagoan knows about the highly segregated nature of our city’s neighborhoods. D’Amato’s photographs do their part to combat classist and racist notions, instead offering documentation of a way of American life. His statement about this project comes from 1 Corinthians 12: 12 & 26, which emphasizes the importance of every member of a community; though the subjects of D’Amato’s photographs are largely black people living on Chicago’s West Side, the HereStillNow series (from which We Shall is drawn) speaks to concerns facing all Americans, and in turn, the human race.
In this city, the media often times conflates the South and West Sides, and stigmatizes both. This report by Mark Suppelsa for WGNTV communicates that they’re places to be feared. Suppelsa displays a clear white martyr complex, writing as if he’s giving readers “the scoop” on this neighborhood because he spendt 12 hours there and “witnessed more trouble than most will see in their lifetime.” This is a report that does nothing more than heighten the fear around this neighborhood, thus creating deeper chasms between those who live there and those who don’t.
It’s precisely this type of alienating language that the press release for D’Amato’s show uses, when really that couldn’t be further from the point of his work. On the DePaul Art Museum website, Assistant Curator Gregory Harris, who’s held this position for little more than two years, is quoted as saying (italics are mine):
“[Amato’s] photos refuse to provide all of the answers but instead embrace an aesthetic and poignant complexity that allows us to experience things we many not fully understand.”
The use of “us” here suggests that the “we” Harris is speaking to did not grow up in a low-income house or apartment, either on the West Side of Chicago or anywhere. This way of speaking reinforces once again that art is by and for the privileged. It also implies that viewers are coming to D’Amato’s art exhibition in order to see what poor black people’s lives are really like. The language couldn’t be further from the message of the photographs, which are not about sensationalizing or other-ing the experiences of these people. Had the curator considered these types of questions, perhaps the many who encounter this website would see the work in a different light. It’s a disappointment to Chicago, a city known in the art world for Theaster Gates, whose Dorchester Projects seek to reinvigorate abandoned buildings on the South Side, and Kerry James Marshall, whose work often speaks to the invisibility of and discrimination against black people in America.
D’Amato’s photographs portray a sensitivity to their subjects, who are presented as people living their lives in one part of the city — dignified and humanized. The subjects are shown in moments vulnerable and lucid, recalling the work of LaToya Ruby Frazier, a photographer who, as Hyperallergic Weekend editor Thomas Micchelli writes, “cannot forget who she is or where she came from.” Unlike Frazier, D’Amato is not a part of the experience that he documents, but, unlike sensationalized news reports from Chicago’s mainstream media outlets, he doesn’t treat it as one to be othered or feared.
In one of D’Amato’s photographs, we see Cabrini Green on its journey to becoming rubble, which speaks to the displacement of low-income people of color. In another, the photographer captures a fading portrait of a black man in a suit and tie on the side of a building; above him, the words “WE SHALL” appear scratched into the whittling white paint. There’s a shallow depth-of-focus picture of a sticker of Tigger from the classic children’s book Winnie the Pooh on a dirty window; his orange fur is gone, faded into washed-out white with black stripes. In another photograph of childhood innocence lost, a scuzzy white wall is covered with a row of slowly peeling Mickey Mouse stickers. In another, shelves of books sit in front of wallpaper that’s curling up and falling off.
The landscapes and people in D’Amato’s photographs are one take on American lives being lived, people just trying to make out okay, or better. Sometimes, both the present and the future look bleak; at others, in photographs of children at school or women dressed in red at church, there’s something in store.
We Shall: Photographs by Paul D’Amato runs through November 24 at the DePaul Art Museum (835 W Fullerton, Chicago).