Zoom

Washed-up cowboys, lady mechanics, homeless philosophers--photographer Wing Young Huie has seen it all. Now, by hanging 600 of his Lake Street portraits in public, he's ready to show the city to itself.

On the first legitimately warm day of spring, I went for a long walk down Lake Street and tried to keep my eyes open. Here's what I saw: a woman of indeterminate age, wild-eyed, toothless, head shaved bald, standing in the middle of traffic; a young man curled around a pay-phone receiver trying to make out the sound of his lover's voice; two white-haired ladies steering electric wheelchairs intently against each other like jockeys fighting for inside position; a mother balancing an infant and a Kmart bag on her hips; a giant man shuddering through a back alley; a pair of women wrapped in maroon saris, dreaming of someplace far away from here; people smiling when they didn't think anyone was looking; a Labrador who'd slipped his leash to sniff and paw in a bed of flowers; the sun-splashed calm of a graveyard; the fissures in the sidewalk through which weeds grow; a mission church; a father leading his baby across the street by the hand; gulls diving around an vacant lot, picking at plastic bags and old newspapers swirling in the breeze.

Geographically speaking, Lake Street proper is the six-mile artery between the Mississippi River to the east and Lake Calhoun to the west. It's not a neighborhood in any accurate sense--mostly a tangle of low-slung churches and liquor stores, seedy bars and bodegas wedged shoulder to shoulder. There's something peculiarly American about this present-tense jumble: If you don't like where you're standing, walk 50 yards in any direction and you'll be someplace new. A long swath of the street, between Minnehaha and 27th avenues, is run-down, and after 8:00 p.m., when the lights of the used-car lots go out and traffic thins to a slow ebb, it's one of the darkest places in the city. There is a billboard at the east end of the street that reads "Prepare to Meet Thy God." At night, it feels less like an invitation than a warning.

The photographer Wing Young Huie has been mapping the topography of Lake Street for the past four years. He has learned its terrain inch by inch and recorded its manic rhythms by night and by day. He has made thousands of exposures of those who live and work and wander on the street. He has spent hundreds of hours talking to them and listening to them talk about themselves. And it's all been mere preparation for his cartographic masterwork, perhaps the strangest, most ambitious public art exhibit ever to grace an American city. At six miles, it's certainly the longest.

Over the next few months, Huie's photographs, the Lake Street USA project, will begin to appear in the front windows of stores along the thoroughfare. There will be only a few at first, and no one will pay much attention. But they will multiply, and by midsummer there will be 600 images installed on the street, most 11 inches by 17 inches, with some measuring 12 feet by 8 feet. They will be portraits--of poets, and homeless kids, and congregations praying, and old folks puttering around their homes, and Somali immigrants, and salesmen, and pierced, painted anarchists, and aging cowboys. Some people will look carefully and read the captions beneath the photos, which describe the lives of Huie's subjects. Some will see themselves reflected, and some will see a reflection of themselves they don't recognize. Some will contribute mustaches and horns with black marker. There will be too many faces to ignore and, slowly, people on the street will begin to take notice.

 

"It's endless," Huie is saying. "Every business is a subculture, everything's in flux. Lake Street is what America is becoming. But there are people who don't want to face the reality."

We're threading the byways of downtown Minneapolis in the photographer's battered Saab, the first surge of the afternoon commute pushing us forward. "The New York Times Magazine called me looking for photos of immigrants. Someone who looks like an immigrant doing something really American--like, I don't know, eating a hot dog in front of the flag. I started thinking, What is American? Is there such a thing? There's a popular media perception of what America is. But is that it?"

Huie is in an uncharacteristically reflective mood. Through the hours we've spent talking over the last few weeks, he has rarely suggested that his work represents anything more sociologically significant than an honest photo album of life on Lake Street. I've come to recognize that he isn't just being coy or self-consciously enigmatic in the way that artists sometimes are. He doesn't explain his work, because, on some level, he can't. The Lake Street USA project is too expansive, its significance too elusive. To couch this grand enterprise in the terms of a sociopolitical agenda, Huie believes, would be to constrict it, to cheapen its possibility. And he holds great faith in possibility.

At the moment, however, he is groggy from a late-night birthday party the evening before (his 45th). He hasn't been sleeping well, he admits, and when he does he is troubled by dreams of failure. "I feel like I'm having a meltdown," he says. "There's so much more I wanted to photograph. I have to back off a little. Can't worry so much about the details."

The logistics are indeed staggering. There are hundreds of photos to print, enlarge, and install in storefront windows and on bus-stop shelters. There are skeptical business owners to convince that the pictures won't be too provocative, too political, too black, too white, too big, too personal, or too arty (all of which they will, to some extent, be). There are corporate flacks to bypass, and city officials to entreat. There is a book deal to work out with St. Paul's Ruminator Press, and an online catalog to design. (A collection of Huie's Lake Street photos ran in City PagesSeptember 10, 1997.) There is still $50,000 to raise--roughly half the exhibit's total budget. There is a stack of unlicked fundraising envelopes waiting back at Huie's south Minneapolis studio that would tax any mortal's salivary capacity. There are minutiae of tone and contrast to resolve with the printers, which is where we're now headed.

The photographer's print shop of choice, Photos Inc., is located in a squat office building in a West Bank industrial park. We park the car and move inside. Wing is five-foot-ten, slender, and complexly freckled, which, when added to his stoop-shouldered gait, simultaneously points to much time spent outside in the sun and many hours bent over in the false twilight of the darkroom. While working, he favors jeans and open flannel shirts. His hair is buzzed militarily short. He is often very quiet, and his eyes, which are dark and focused, suggest great reserves of patience. When he does speak, it is in an evenly modulated voice that must put the subjects of his photos at immediate ease, coax them into opening themselves to the camera's cycloptic gaze. In casual conversation, though, he often seems to be only half-present, as though the bulk of his attention is devoted to some private calculation.

Inside the shop Huie stops to chat with the receptionist. He's been making the trip to Photos Inc. at least twice a week for the past month to check on the progress of the printing, which is costing $40,000 and is thus a source of constant anxiety, and he now knows nearly everyone here. The office and print shop are done in institutional white and smell faintly of chemicals. After a minute or two we go through a set of double doors, where Roger, the Photos Inc. printer who has been working almost exclusively with Huie, rolls out the most recent edition of the exhibit's signature 12-foot-by-8-foot portrait.

The picture, one of the first Huie took when he began shooting more than three years ago, is of a woman and child. He met them, he recalls, at a Martin Luther King Day celebration in Powderhorn Park. The woman is wearing a black overcoat and is holding the child close, almost wrapping her in its folds. When Huie first saw the negatives, he says, the pose reminded him of a kangaroo holding a joey in its pouch. The photo also recalls something else: The woman's gaze is focused straight at the camera, while the girl's eyes are averted up and to her right. It's an uncanny approximation of the iconographic Madonna and child.

But something isn't right. Huie has been playing with tonal variations, trying to heighten the portrait's contrast so that it will be clearly visible from yards away. Ideally, the dual-tone print will be richer and warmer than one done in straight black ink. In this incarnation, however, the sepia tint is too strong. It overpowers the contrast between the figures and the background, and even from a few feet away the photo looks washed out and indistinct. Huie smoothes the glossy paper with one hand and stares glumly. This means another printing, and the project's unofficial public debut, which he has taken to calling his D-day, is only two weeks away.

 

Huie's studio is located on the second floor of a converted bakery building on the modest, tree-fringed edge of the Powderhorn Park neighborhood. It's an airy, well-lighted space and would be very roomy except that it now appears to have been requisitioned as the headquarters for a minor military operation. A hand-drawn map of Lake Street covered in nests of colored pushpins takes up most of one wall. The room itself is occupied almost exclusively by wheeled bulletin boards, which are covered by most of the exhibit's photos, along with printed excerpts from the interviews Huie recorded to accompany them. In the background, Elvis Presley is warbling "Stuck on You."

This morning, the photographer is on the phone with a city official, negotiating the release of ten bus-stop shelters along Lake Street. The woman sounds tinny and far away over speakerphone. Huie, who is wearing black jeans and a black shirt, has crossed his elbows over his chest and has a look of intense consternation. He suddenly seems like the sort of person who would make a formidable chess opponent. "My crystal ball is real foggy," the official is saying. "August and September are real busy for us." The bus stops--which Huie conceived of as supplements to the storefront displays--are going to be somewhat more difficult to secure than he'd first thought.

Huie has been living in the studio for the past two years, although the signs of regular human occupancy have been mostly swallowed by Lake Street-related flotsam and jetsam: stacks of envelopes, photos strung out along the walls like Christmas lights, forgotten Post-It notes. The darkroom, which is shrouded in black cloth, is adjacent to the kitchen, where dishes wait patiently in the sink above a small stash of half-empty liquor bottles. A living space, less than ten-feet square, has been carved out of the center of the room and furnished with a couch, a television, and an overflowing bookshelf. There are few personal effects that don't relate to Huie's work. Even the studio's sleeping quarters, tucked in a small alcove near the rear of the room, are only a few feet from an aqua iMac computer; you can imagine him working on the project in his sleep.

The studio's resident felines--one tabby, one black--are wound together in a patch of sunlight. Sprawled around them is Huie's crew: one full-time assistant, a friendly young woman named Alison Ziegler; and a squadron of college-age interns. They've spent the last week soliciting window space from businesses along Lake Street, and are now exchanging anecdotes. "The guy asked me, 'Got any pictures of black people?' Then he goes, 'Well, if we have a black and a Mexican, I suppose we need an Asian.' 'What about white people?' I asked him. 'I guess we'll need one of those, too.'

The morning's business is curating the exhibit--meticulously choosing which photos will end up where. Laid out in no particular order, the montage is disorienting; the effect is like looking into a swaying, stirring crowd and trying to pick out a friendly face. The variety, too, induces a pleasurable vertigo: Here is an old urban cowboy shuffling across a busy intersection; a man in a gorilla costume, captured at the Uptown Art Fair; a used-car salesman 20 years past the best day of his life; an American Indian muralist keeping his eyes on the sky like El Greco's Jesus; a congregation worshiping in a shadow-cooled mosque; a Tibetan monk at rest; a barrel-chested man holding a tiny puppy between two meaty fingers; a kid with gravity-defying hair lifting his shirt to show off a tattoo that announces "Punk is not dead" (except the tattoo artist must have taken liberties, because it actually looks like "Pank is not deak").

Some of the images are overtly political. One is of a figure pushing a shopping cart full of soda cans beneath a McDonald's arch that reads "Billions and billions served." Another finds a homeless man, face scarred to the texture of beaten leather, sitting in front of the Heart of the Beast puppet theater's marquee, which is advertising a show titled "Between the Worlds. Songs of Dark and Light." A steel lamppost cuts the frame into two, so that the man is centered in one and the marquee lights are in the other. It's deep winter, and as Huie shot the photo the day was dying quickly. "My name is Psycho," the man tells us.

"A lot of people are invisible," Huie says simply.

For all its discordant variety, a thread of calm runs through the collection. It's something about the way people meet Huie's camera--steady, even defiant--and something about the way Huie meets his subjects--level, patient, undemanding. All photographs capture light. That's what a photograph is--a negative impression of light on colloidal particles of silver. Some photos also capture the mechanics of grace.

Huie stops in front of a picture he took last year. It's of a Vietnamese poet gazing happily out the window of an Uptown café as life slurs by on Lake Street. He rides the bus in from the suburbs every day to sit and watch. The caption adjacent the photo reads, "When I have pain, I have to write. After I write, I have more pain. I feel better for a short time. Then I feel more pain."

"It's like a little short story," Huie muses. "The photo looks so different after you read the words. I mean, that says it all about art, doesn't it?"

 

Huie's favorite photo is a 1963 Garry Winogrand zoo scene in which a group of spectators is shown staring down into a walrus tank. The animal, meanwhile, is gazing straight into the lens of the camera. Its expression (if a walrus can, in fact, be said to have an expression) is one of innocent curiosity--an odd juxtaposition to the rapt gawking of the human onlookers. Huie likes the photo, he says, because it's the first picture that ever struck him as funny. He captures its appeal nicely: "You see the people. You see the walrus. Then you laugh."

It's not hard to see why this tricky tableau resonates for Huie. Winogrand's photos are so much about perception, and as a young man growing up in the Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth, Huie was often aware of being seen. His father was an immigrant from Guangdong province in China, an industrious man who worked his way up from dishwasher to become a restaurateur. "My parents were not greatly concerned about my knowing or keeping Chinese traditions, except for holidays such as Chinese New Year," Huie wrote in the preface to his first book of photos. "On those occasions, my mother would make me pray with her in front of our makeshift household altar, decorated with fruit and incense. The only times I spoke Chinese were at home with her, and those became fewer as I grew older."

He was the youngest of six children, and the only member of the family born in the United States. "I separated my family life from my social life," he says. "I never thought about being Chinese unless I was at home. My family sometimes seemed exotic even to me." The conditioned ability to see something foreign and noteworthy even in the mundanities of one's own domestic life might eventually have made a photographer of him. But, he says, as a boy he assumed that he would follow his father and brothers into the restaurant business.

At age 20, Huie and one of his brothers made a trip to Hong Kong, then as now the East's City of Light. It was a revelation, first because he'd never seen so many Asians in one place before--the exotic suddenly became pedestrian--and second because he bought his first camera there. He began taking pictures of his family and his neighborhood, and enrolled in a photography course at the University of Minnesota, but he still didn't think seriously of the craft. He decided, instead, that he'd become a writer. "I went through different periods: Vonnegut, Henry Miller, Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice. You couldn't get that in Duluth, so I thought I was really cool."

After he finished college, Huie migrated to the Twin Cities, where he began freelancing as a journalist and photographer, and bartending to make ends meet. On one of his first commissions he went out into the city to photograph people's most prized possessions. "The assignment was to make order out of chaos," he says, "so I knocked on people's doors like a salesman. It was amazing getting inside their homes, and it got me wondering what goes on in different neighborhoods."

At the same time, however, he was growing disillusioned with photojournalism and commercial photography--though he still does both to support himself--because of the limits on time and subject matter. "You know how you know you should be doing something and you aren't doing it and you think about it every day and it stresses you out? That's pretty much what my 20s were about."

He doesn't recall the moment he came upon the idea of documenting a neighborhood, but in the aforementioned preface, he traces it to a single afternoon stroll around University Avenue, near where he was then living. "For several blocks I didn't see anyone. It seemed as though everyone was hiding. But then I turned a corner and was struck by the sight of a mélange of families, all on the same block--Asian, black, and white--out on their respective porches enjoying the day. And there were children everywhere, spilling out from the curbless sidewalks onto the street. Then I saw a nun in a full white habit, walking through this jumble of life like an angel, or an aberration. It was intoxicating to witness such an exotic mix in such commonplace surroundings. I felt as though I had discovered strange new territory." His exploration culminated in Lake Street USA's precursor, an acclaimed 1995 street exhibit of 173 photos taken in St. Paul's Frogtown.

"I didn't have any sort of social agenda," he recalls, "but I showed the photos to a handful of friends, and people started asking questions about the social implications. I'm not an activist, but I have to be responsible to the larger purpose."

Here, he stops. He doesn't like to expand too much on his larger purpose: He fears that thinking too much will jinx what, to him, remains a mysterious and deeply intimate exchange between subject and artist. And he distrusts art that comes with rhetoric grander than its actuality. The closest he will come to describing his philosophy as a photographer is this: "A lot of my work is about coexisting realities. You can't experience another person's reality no matter how empathetic you are."

Huie's initial encounter with Lake Street, he says, was part by design and part by serendipity. He'd taken a studio near Powderhorn Park, and the neighborhood quickly became his new subject. Here was a transit artery that bisected the entire American socioeconomic spectrum, from the tony Gap-and-Starbucks-infested Uptown area to the down-at-the-heels east end. Here, also, was a chain of ethnic enclaves that mirrors the full range of the American citizenry. As in nowhere else in the city, Huie saw in Lake Street a microcosm of the new America, a place where those parallel realities shift against one another in constant tectonic flux.

Jane Strauss, a gregarious and mildly eccentric woman, has lived along Lake Street for 20 years. She has been, at various times, an actor, a writer, a visual artist, a teacher, and a mother. She now resides in a brick house that is trim on the outside--and inside appears to have seen the visitation of a number of tornadoes (who are, she says, currently two-and-a-half, eleven, thirteen, fifteen, and seventeen years old). Strauss is also an amateur auto mechanic, and she stables two cars in her back yard: a pumpkin-orange Volkswagen Beetle and a gray 1964 S-Series Jaguar. "Just because you're an orthodox Jewish lady," she exclaims, "doesn't mean you can't mess around with cars."

Strauss has seen the neighborhood around East Lake seesaw over the years. "It's gone from okay to bottoming out to coming back. A lot of that was dealing with the porn business. It was all those damn suburban idiots driving around propositioning pregnant ladies in the neighborhood. Why don't they have porn in the suburbs? Keep it there and leave us alone!

"Lake Street has a character," she continues. "It's just not a unified character. It's mostly working class, just folks doing what they need to get by. It's less plastic than the suburbs. It's a main street, in the real sense of the word. It's diverse--not just Taco Hell and McDonald's on the same street--but in the real sense."

Strauss first met Huie at a Somali job-development center where she then worked, and where the photographer had come to scout subjects. She invited him to shoot her family, and he obliged on two occasions: first for the bris of her youngest child and then for a Sukkoth celebration. She isn't sure how she'll react to seeing such private images on the street. "It's really removed from where we are right now. I know my kids are a little embarrassed. My son, who was only 11 at the time, is growing a mustache. He tells me, 'I wear a hat now so nobody's going to recognize me.' My daughter wears mostly black and a spiked collar so no one will recognize her.

"My main concern, though, is that those photos that reinforce stereotypes will get more attention from the media....It's interesting that Huie is dealing with black and white, because that's what Lake Street is: a strip of black asphalt with white curbs. The media's view is black and white. Minnesota's view is black and white. But black and white also has shades of gray, and the media doesn't catch that."

Strauss is, I think, pointing to a paradox of the modern American city. We live in peaceful and overwhelmingly prosperous times, after all, in neighborhoods with others like ourselves--citizens, who, though outwardly different, share our ambitions and anxieties. We recognize in these neighbors a set of common interests--in continued peace and prosperity--that we find comforting. We intuit an essential sameness: e pluribus unum. At the same time, at the periphery of our terra familiaris, we recognize cultural strata and substrata that we cannot penetrate. We occasionally intuit that our community--indeed, the whole idea of community--may be a convenient illusion covering a much more complex and confusing reality: e unibus pluram, from one reality come a multitude of perceptions. We live in an American city, which means navigating ever-shifting terrain.

Whatever Lake Street itself may represent, then, it does not stand still for long, and it is not necessarily reducible to the sum of its parts. As Huie often says, it would take 10,000 photos to faithfully map the human topography of this single street, and even then we would only see part of the story in them, for the people represented would have grown and the city would have changed.

Huie doesn't consider photos to be a pristine reflection of reality. He often paraphrases Winogrand on the matter: "I photograph not to find out what something looks like, but what something will look like photographed." Accordingly, he doesn't talk about exposing the invisible inhabitants of Lake Street. He thinks of the project, rather, as an enormous Borges-like fiction in which he, his subjects, and spectators will participate: a fleeting, sketched-in portrait of a transitory neighborhood, which, frozen in time and suspended in space, will soon become an unfinished history. It will testify, he says, only to what he saw and what we see in it.

Like most of us, Huie is uneasy with the extent to which the printed image has been appropriated and adulterated by advertising. That, he says, is why it's so important to install his photos on the street; put them in a museum and they would be subsumed in a rhetorical framework, shuffled away and reductively explained as "fine art." Install a collection of photographs in situ, and they will take on the patina of advertising, a power based on scale and saturation and monopoly of our attention.

Douglas Fogle, an assistant curator at Walker Art Center who coordinated an exhibit of Huie's Lake Street photos in 1999, considers the project's street-installation an ambivalent comment on the tyranny of advertising along Lake Street (which, it hardly needs to be said, is largely intent on hawking the more pernicious commodities of late-stage capitalism). "The photos are worthy of a museum context," Fogle says. "But the fact that Huie wants to operate in all these venues makes it something entirely different. It breaks those boundaries you have in a museum, because of the experience of confronting the images on the street."

Unlike the work of most navel-gazing fine-arts photographers today--concerned with self-exploration, abstraction of form, etc.--the Lake Street project embraces the cold-eyed humanism of photojournalism. It is, says Fogle, a distinctly democratic approach: art of the people and decidedly for the people. And it exists (though Huie would probably not say so) at the nexus where art shades into politics and politics into morality.

As such, Lake Street USA is a descendant of Walker Evans's Depression-era photos of the rural poor, the politically overcharged images of Robert Frank's The Americans, the work of Lewis Hine (and, hell, maybe even the class-conscious paintings of Daumier). But the lineage is not direct: Though Evans's work is considered the point of origin for much American photojournalism, the photographer never let his subjects write their own biographies. And Frank crisscrossed the continent, an immensely gifted tourist with a camera, never immersing himself in the lives he registered.

Perhaps the closest analogy is the Pittsburgh Project, which was undertaken in the years after WWII by a mercurial former battlefield photographer named W. Eugene Smith. In 1953, after quitting his job at Life magazine, Smith was commissioned by the citizens of Pittsburgh to produce 100 prints for the city's bicentennial celebration. Instead, he spent four years on the project, living in the city, scouring its streets and corners after dark, taking more than 11,000 exposures. He was fascinated, he later wrote in a letter, by what he called the "equilibriums of paradox": black and white, birth and decay, industrial and natural, present and past. When, near his death, he had published almost none of the photos--his New York home was wallpapered in the prints--Smith began to think of the Pittsburgh project both as his life's great work and his final failure. His friends believed that it had driven him mad.

According to Vince Leo, chair of media arts at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and a longtime friend of Huie's, though the Lake Street project may rise from the tradition of Evans and Smith, it is not necessarily beholden to it. "The photos betray Wing's true gift," he says, "which is to engage people in the photographic act. It's a media redemption in a way, when you look at how newspaper and TV stations go after subjects. Wing's photos are social acts. They're not simply representation, but arise from social interaction.

"The scale is important, [but] what's really different is the idea of a community documentary--that the community has a stake in its own representation. Throw in ideas about public art and unusual venues and you're almost there."

And this, finally, is what's remarkable about Lake Street USA. As Leo says, most public art takes a predesignated corner of the world at large and turns it into gallery space; Huie is hurling his art into the world from which it comes. It's a passionate overture that he hopes will inspire passionate engagement. Ideally, he says, people walking Lake Street will be exposed to lives they wouldn't otherwise encounter: East African immigrants in the Central neighborhood will come face to face with skate-punks from Bloom-Lake, and shoppers in Uptown will run into East African immigrants. They might stop to search the crowd for an open face, just as Huie did, and maybe, momentarily consider the uncommon ground we share.

But, Huie realizes, once the photos are installed he will have ceded all authority over their interpretation. And, perhaps appropriately, he has decided to give the entire exhibit back to the city when it comes down in October: the photos will be auctioned off, and the money will be funneled back to community groups.

He isn't sure what he'll do after that; he's been inside the work for so long, he says, that it's hard to think past it. He has ideas, though. He'd like to spend a few months photographing a single Minneapolis family. He's been thinking about an exhibit that would integrate his images with a collection of the family's personal effects--an anthropological catalog of modern life. He thinks he might like to travel the country taking pictures with his fiancée, whom he'll wed this autumn. America is changing, he says, and he'd
like to be there to
record it.

 

The morning of Friday, June 2 is moody and overcast. Two workers are up on scaffolding at the front of the former Sears building near the corner of Chicago and Lake, securing the first photo to the façade with a drill. Huie, who is dressed in a light denim jacket and carries a Polaroid camera over his shoulder, is being interviewed by a reporter from Minnesota Public Radio. Tenth Ward city council member Lisa McDonald stopped by a few minutes earlier to offer her congratulations, but for the most part no one is paying much attention to the installation. A bus grinds to a stop directly opposite the site, which is separated from the street by a six-foot-tall chain-link fence, and the people on board gaze at the photo with the middle-distance stare that we all adopt on public transportation.

The Sears building, which was rechristened the Great Lake Center in 1998, is the symbolic epicenter of the Lake Street USA project. It's a beachhead for Huie's invasion, which will begin in earnest later this month. The building itself is a fossil, in poor repair--the brick is pitted and gaps in the boarded-up windows are plugged with plastic--and monstrously out of scale with the neighborhood, like a skyscraper in a cornfield. The area around it has long been either ignored or maligned; indeed, the most conspicuous businesses here are a discount liquor store, a brutally modern Indian Services building, and a shabby Family Dollar. There is also a mosque next door, in the rear of a building occupied by a café and a beauty salon. As Huie finishes his interview, the parking lot begins to fill with taxis. The faithful are arriving for noon prayers.

The workers, meanwhile, have finished mounting the larger-than-life photo. It's the same portrait we saw a few weeks earlier at the print shop. Now, however, the contrast is beautiful. The woman's coat, wrapped tightly around her charge, puts her face and the child's in bold relief. Set on the side of the mammoth brick building, the effect is exhilaratingly stark. Huie is feeling emotional. "Look at the way she's dressed and the way she looks," he says, pointing at his work. "It looks like a photo of Harlem in the Thirties or Fifties. There's something about the way she's looking at you and the way she's holding the girl, like they're one person.

"I've spent so much time imagining it. I get worried, you know. It's just pictures in windows. Maybe they'll get lost. Maybe the photos will get swallowed by the city. This gives me hope."

When the radio reporter has gone and the workers have finished taking down the scaffolding, we walk across the street to stand in a bank parking lot to look at the picture from a distance. On the escarpment between the asphalt and the sidewalk, a man in a soiled corduroy jacket has fallen asleep with his face in his hat. Huie notices that the fence around the building covers the lower half of the photo, so that only the woman's face is clearly visible above it. "You know," he says quietly, "I've been dreaming about this for so long, but I had no idea how it would look. You never know how people are going to see it."

For the first time today, the sun burns through the swollen late-spring sky. We look at the photo for a few minutes, and Huie sees something else he hadn't noticed before: the background catches the sunlight, and the reflected glow becomes a halo around the woman's head. Rising from the ruins of the past, it feels like a blessing on this restless place.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...