On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Southwest Washington, Mark Clark moves around his studio, working on a painting of car parts arranged to look like a horse’s head. It’s modeled after a work by 16th-century Italian painter Giuseppe Archimboldo, who liked to do the same thing with fruits and vegetables. Clark is hunched up close to the canvas, meticulously working out a trompe l’oeil effect.
A tall, angular woman wanders in. She wears close-cropped hair, a plaid shirt, and construction-worker boots. As she drifts across the room, she examines the photographs hanging on the walls, the work of Clark’s friend Adrienne Mills. “Is that a man or a woman?” she asks, referring to a shot of a figure whose body is painted with stripes. “A woman,” Clark replies. Seemingly satisfied, the woman wanders out again.
“She’s one of the local crackheads,” Clark explains, staring after her from his window. “You can usually find her turning tricks in the back.”
Clark, 55, knows his neighbors very well. He moved to his Half Street house with his wife, Betty Clark, in 1988. He purchased this studio six years ago,while working as a collections manager at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. When Clark moved in, the doors were riddled with bullet holes.
“This is no location, no location, no location,” Clark says of his space at 8 and 8 1/2 N St. SW. “This is a horrendous neighborhood for anything except crack cocaine and prostitution—I feel like the luckiest SOB on the planet for having a studio here.”
It shows: Clark recently obtained a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to record the recollections of the neighborhood’s elderly for an oral history. And since August of last year, he’s been working with four local photographers on the Neighborhood Archive Project, an effort to document the approximately 200 people who live in and around the Washington Sanitary Houses around the corner at Carrollsburg Place and Half Street SW.
The houses’ history is an emblematic Southwest story: In 1907, the Washington Sanitary Improvement Co. built the group of town houses with indoor plumbing—a rarity in this working-class neighborhood of freed slaves and recent immigrants. By the ’20s, however, the area was in decline, and there’s an oft-repeated story about how Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a point of gloating over the neighborhood’s abject conditions when he visited in the ’50s. Still, even as urban renewal tore up most of Southwest, the Sanitary Houses were left standing.
Clark reckons that his Archive Project collaborators—Hank Ferrand, Harlee Little, Bruce McNeal, and Michael Platt—have photographed about half the Sanitary Houses’ residents so far. The others, he says, don’t want to be photographed—because they’re either shy or in trouble with the law.
“It’s sort of a microcosm of a changing neighborhood,” Clark says of the site. “A lot of the old people are dying off or moving to senior citizens’ [homes], and a lot of the wildlife is disappearing—going to jail or just kind of drifting away.”
Last summer, McNeal, a 60-year-old Greenway resident, approached Clark about using his studio for a group show of African-American photographers. Each artist had his own body of work, but when Clark demanded a theme, the men decided to start a new project. “We were sitting [in the studio], trying to come up with a theme,” recalls Clark. “Guy named Duck walks by. We were like, ‘Look at that head!’”
Clark and his collaborators soon realized that being photogenic doesn’t necessarily mean that you own many photos. “One of the things that inspired the project was when one of the neighbors here on Half Street got burned out…. [She] died from an overdose,” Clark says. “We couldn’t find a single photo….Here was my neighbor, a woman I’d known for 15 years, and it was like she’d vanished off the planet.”
After an informal poll of the neighborhood revealed that more than half its residents didn’t even own pictures of their children, the artists decided to do something about it. Although Clark let the others take all of the Archive Project’s photographs, he’s the one who recounts the subjects’ histories, his voice giving each story its fair share of wonder, empathy, and amusement.
He recalls, for example, how Thomas “Concrete” Senn, a neighborhood vagrant, scammed him out of $300 when he hired Concrete to paint his house. He also remembers how, when he needed a post in his backyard replaced, Concrete did it for $10—because, Clark suggests, he must have been feeling guilty.
“He was really hard to look at—a winehead with a flat nose, eyes swollen shut,” Clark says. “Drink didn’t do him any favors.”
The group’s portrait of the man is frank and unsentimental: Concrete’s eyes regard the camera with dulled wariness from beneath heavily scarred brows. Like all of the Archive Project photos, the picture was taken without anyone’s asking the subject to pose in any specific way. According to Ferrand, a 57-year-old Takoma, D.C., resident who abandoned his 20-year-old real-estate-consultancy business five years ago to concentrate on his art, the sitters’ physical presence usually conveyed enough personality on its own: “One guy, he was very tall and angry-looking. When he sat down, his legs made angles.”
To encourage participation in the project, Clark passed out fliers, knocked on doors, and sometimes even rounded up people off the street. “Mark,” says Ferrand, “was an ambassador to the neighborhood.” According to the Petworth-based Little, 56, Clark’s background in the museum world was equally important: “He was always saying, ‘Let’s not forget this one. Let’s try to get this one—and get full background information!’”
“Everything down here is quid pro quo,” says Clark, explaining that in exchange for signing a release, Archive Project participants got a picture of themselves. At first, however, few seemed interested. “Many a day in the summertime we would wait in the studio with the door open and nobody would walk in,” McNeal recalls. “Then we got one person. And that person really eased the tension….Mothers were sending in their children.”
Most weekends, three, and sometimes all four, photographers would set up inside Clark’s studio. They would then photograph anyone who walked in, using both traditional and digital cameras. Periodically, the four would compare all the pictures they had taken of each subject and vote on the best one. Platt, 56, who lives and works in Capitol Heights, Md., would then print it out onto 44-by-65-inch pieces of Tyvek. “One of my private passions was to have large pictures,” he says. “Big heads of everyday folks from the city.”
In November 2003, the photographers had two openings at Clark’s studio—one for the neighbors and one for the public. Because they collaborated so closely, the group didn’t identify individual photographers for the show. “It was about the subjects,” Little says. “These are neighborhoods of people who are not visible…half a mile from the Capitol. It was really interesting to see people after they saw themselves.”
“Oh yeah, they were proud,” McNeal interjects. “It was a celebration. One of them brought his family and asked to be rephotographed.”
“You’d get lots of anecdotes about how things used to be…” McNeal continues. “When other people in the community came in to see the show, a whole other dialogue started. The neighborhood was remembering Concrete, his wedding, his career as an electrician—before he became homeless, alcoholic, in and out of jail. Although he lived in the neighborhood, he slept in an abandoned home. Two weeks after I photographed him, he died.”
The neighbors’ reaction pleased the photographers, who were more interested in documenting their subjects than in commodifying them. “It’s not like, ‘Gee, look at these people—they need your help,’” says Little, “or ‘They’re noble individuals’….We just want to give some idea of who the people who live in this city are.”
Little and McNeal say that they are just getting started—they’ve now moved on to photographing senior citizens at city-run centers throughout the District. The photos from each series will be on display at the Warehouse Gallery on 7th Street NW later this month, accompanied by video footage of the first two openings. For the moment, the photographers have no plans to go back to the Sanitary Houses, but Clark remains intimately involved in his neighborhood.
That much is clear when Clark pays a visit to Naomi “Miss Omie” Wright, an 88-year-old retired street cleaner who has lived on Carrollsburg Place since 1977. “Lord, you see some awful things done here,” she says. “When I first moved here…” She stops, then whistles loud and long. “Now it’s gotten a lot better.”
She and Clark immediately launch into an intricate discussion of neighborhood current events. As Miss Omie recounts a litany of crimes, Clark keeps up a steady stream of rejoinders, including his favorite, “Yikes!”
Miss Omie mentions the man who used to live around the corner who would shoot his gun across South Capitol Street for sport. She and Clark discuss the string of fires that have affected four houses on the block, and the way that neighbors sometimes get wild and dance on the roofs of cars or streak through the streets.
Then she proudly pulls out a framed picture of herself, which she got for participating in the Neighborhood Archive Project. It’s a black-and-white close-up of her face. Under the shadow of her wide-brimmed hat, Miss Omie looks both proud and weary.
“I loved it! I loved it!” she says. “Everybody likes it. All the neighbors came.” CP