At Untapped Cities, we love a great photograph. After all, it is with the help of pictures that we tell our stories, allowing you, our readers, to actually see these “untapped” people and places. But what if you just had the photographs, and nothing else? Imagine seeing photographs of people you don’t know, places that don’t exist today, images of a time gone by””how would you go about piecing together the story behind these pictures?
That was the challenge faced by artist Jason Covert, when in 2004, his mother gave him a small suitcase containing more than a 100 glass negatives taken by his great-great-grandfather, Robert Veitch. Veitch, who ran a grocery store in the Washington Heights neighborhood in the late 19th century, seemed to have also been an avid photographer, with his images showcasing a New York that seems entirely alien to the city that it has become today.
“Once I started scanning these old images, I started realizing, sort of, the magnitude of what I had””both from a personal standpoint and also from a historical standpoint,” Covert said. He then began to do research on these images, corresponding with Cole Thompson, a writer who documents the history of the Inwood neighborhood in his blog, My Inwood. Thompson then began to help Covert figure out some of the places and people in the pictures.
For instance, one image that had Covert guessing was of a beautiful castle, surrounded by a few trees in a snow-laden background. Thompson told him that the monumental structure was Libbey Castle, a Gothic revival designed in the 1800s by the architect Alexander Jackson Davis. However, no trace of Libbey Castle exists today other than in photographs and illustrations–the castle was demolished in 1939 for the creation of what is today Fort Tryon Park.
Once Covert started getting the back stories of these pictures, an idea to bridge the past and present also occurred to him. Covert, an artist who works primarily in the photographic medium, decided to tell a story with his great-great-grandfather’s pictures, while also telling his own story, of today’s culture and times””but still finding a connection of sorts between the two different generations of people and their pictures.
The result is The Bridge, a photography exhibition at Hionas Gallery in Tribeca, which showcases 10 images by Veitch along with 10 corresponding photographs by his great-great-grandson. Covert has recreated the images in a variety of ways””while some are direct tributes to the original images, the others are more abstract in their relation to Veitch’s images of the past. There is a lot of detail in his photographs, and finding the links between the past and the present is an intriguing aspect of this exhibition.
One of the best images in the exhibition is Covert’s reinvention of Veitch’s picture showing a man holding a dagger, presumably an actor playing a villain in a theatrical production. In Covert’s version, Covert himself is in the center of the photograph, seated in a rather macabre setting with knives and blades laid out on a table. With his eyes staring right at the viewer, Covert looks sinister and brooding, with not a trace of the affable man that he actually is. Look back at the original image, and then you’ll find yourself questioning the line between fact and fiction.
Perhaps the allure of these images is best explained by Covert himself in his artist statement, where he says: “Through my work, I ask the viewer to listen for the words of my relatives. In the spaces of the photographs of then and now, there exists a temporal void that bears witness to a startling amount of change, and yet, the differences between us are both great and small. It is in that space that comfort lies, proving once again that we are never as far from the source as we might think.”
A set of 20 images will be shown as part of Jason Covert’s exhibition, The Bridge, at Hionas Gallery in Tribeca from November 1-24, 2012, with a special event on Friday, November 16th at 6.30 p.m. where Covert will talk about his work, joined by Cole Thompson, local historian and author, and Ryan Carey, curator with the Museum of the City of New York. Find more details by checking out the Facebook event invite here.
Get in touch with the author @thisisaby.