There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
On any given day, Lely Constantinople is burning through a roll of film on an out-of-the-way boulevard somewhere in D.C. Over the past few years, she’s been doing the exact same thing: making a record of a city, accumulating visual data that never show up in statistics.
Constantinople practices a variety of street photography that may, over time, yield evidence of the ebb and tide of an urban landscape. The 27-year-old photographer, whose show of cityscapes opens this week at DCCD in Adams Morgan, prefers to cover the vast, somewhat sleepier, thoroughfares in the city and neighborhoods beyond downtown Starbuckization and upper Northwest boutiquification—the neighborhoods that, as she says, “have a flavor of their own.” It’s a D.C. of barbershops, fly-by-night car washes, tiny churches, and do-it-yourself business ventures that perpetually turn over rather than turn a profit.
She began by taking Polaroids of every block of Georgia Avenue NW, documenting the mundane and sometimes desperately entrepreneurial strip. On her map of the city, she has thoroughly marked through Florida and Massachusetts Avenues, which have recently served as subjects of her work. Florida Avenue “goes through some pretty insane changes” as you travel its jagged, halting length from Dupont Circle to Kingman Park, she says. The transformations add up to the riddle of D.C.: These streets vastly change character as they cross the city, but they have maintained their essence for years. They preserve “the flavor of old D.C.,” she says. “That old feeling. It’s home-grown.”
Recently, Constantinople began photographing Georgia Avenue for the first time since she originally began to document the strip in January 1996, and she has found dramatic differences along the thoroughfare. “Little things like liquor stores…become churches and then go away and become liquor stores again,” she observes. At some point, she became aware of the minute details of neighborhood signage, returning to, say, the Sparkle Car Wash again and again to keep track of its look. Some places never seem to change: landmarks that carry a distinct flavor, like the Raven Bar & Grill in Mount Pleasant, where Constantinople chose to shoot a suited gentleman at the bar on an early weekday afternoon to tell a story of a blissfully static place.
Three years ago, Constantinople was on her way to a promising career in television journalism, paying her dues at the ABC news show Nightline. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, she had taken a job in the PR department at ABC, then moved to a position as production coordinator at the terrifically competitive show. But it wasn’t too long before Constantinople was wondering if she was in the right place.
“It’s just too fast-paced” in network television news, she says. “The slower stories are what I am interested in. Stories that take shape after years of investing time in them.”
Ultimately, she couldn’t see herself staying on with the program. “Your lifestyle totally develops around a paycheck,” she laments. When she left her job with the show, her co-workers were stunned. But there was, she says, a bit of “Thank God someone has the balls to leave” veiled in their shock. On the whole, her time at Nightline proved to be “an incredible experience, a great job,” she insists; it gave her plenty of exposure to heavy, quick decision making. John Bibb, a production assistant on Nightline, credits her for having endured “a pretty grinding position.”
While working on a Nightline piece, she met photographer Camilo Jose Vergara, the New York-based photographer who utilizes his long-term time-lapse photographs to show the insidious change afoot on neglected city blocks. She turned on to Vergara’s book, The New American Ghetto, a photo-documentary volume that strikingly depicts urban change in places like the South Bronx, Chicago, and Newark.
“His book totally blew my mind, especially how patient he was,” she says. “It’s amazing to see transformation take place slowly, but abruptly.” Vergara, who recently turned his camera on East Los Angeles in last year’s exhibit at the National Building Museum, has touched base with Constantinople whenever he visits D.C. He has not yet seen her work, but “her interest seems to be along the lines of my interest,” he says in a quiet, thoughtful voice. “Basically, the idea is to do photographs that are conducive to re-photography.” Which sounds easy—until you try it yourself.
Constantinople agrees that she works in the spirit of Vergara, though, she adds, “I don’t want to copy what he does.” Vergara adheres to certain rigid principles to get an accurate record: In re-photography, “you usually don’t use funny angles.” His photographs are completely deadpan, capturing building fronts and empty lots head-on at eye level. And, he adds, you must “respect the identity of what you photograph.” Therefore, lighting has to be even, to allow the lens to collect the maximum amount of information. “What you really want to do is talk about change in the city,” Vergara explains. “The idea is that over time you build a record of a place.”
Constantinople insists that she’s not following any kind of formula. Her only organizational device involves her marked-up street map. Thus her approach is a little less calculated than Vergara’s; she is not likely to use the densely written commentary of his New American Ghetto. “When I do a book, it’ll be small, with full-bleed pictures,” Constantinople assures. Rather than negotiating a tricky concept of “ghetto photography,” Constantinople thinks first of the art. “I love it when the images are strong.” And, though she often gathers stark evidence of poverty in D.C.’s crumbling areas, she tries never to romanticize it.
Like Vergara, Constantinople is often mistaken for a cop or someone who’s lost when she is on the streets snapping. She’s been stopped countless times and warned that she was in a cocaine market or a heroin zone. “I’ve been in sticky situations,” she says dryly. Generally, she gives a copy of a Polaroid on the spot to anyone she meets who may perceive her as a threat.
Constantinople’s calling and her abiding interest in the city likely come from her family’s deep roots in D.C. She’s a fourth-generation Washingtonian who can’t imagine herself living elsewhere. Her father’s Greek family established itself in D.C. in the late 1800s, setting up a fruit-and-vegetable stand on King Street in Alexandria and then a soda shop and candy store in Georgetown. Through Greek merchant lines, she’s connected to the family that ran the old Georgetown Theatre. Her grandmother grew up at 13th and Monroe Streets NW, in a brownstone that still stands—though it’s been boarded up.
Her aesthetic and technique both seem to represent a distinct reaction to her Nightline tour of duty. The news show traffics in a documentary style she calls “really crafted and controlled.” On her own, she says, she prefers to “let things unfold without shaping them too much.” Constantinople’s work is ever in progress; she never gets the sense that anything she does is quite finished. Rather, she lets her raw exposure to the neighborhoods she trudges through define her aesthetic. They change with each sign that goes up; often, a real character falls into frame.
Constantinople has pursued photography since the age of 10, building a darkroom in her parents’ place in Wesley Heights as a teenager. Her focus on D.C. and her art sustains a central theme in her life. Since Nightline, Constantinople has been devoting much of her time to her art while working as an assistant to Washington Post staff photographer Lucian Perkins and to Volkmar Wentzel, a retired staff photographer for National Geographic.
Capturing, as Vergara says, “the elements that make up the life of the city” remains an enchanting vocation. “I’m thinking of doing 14th Street next. It’s a really interesting street, end to end,” she says. It might not be worth a news flash, but it guarantees a good bit of pacing up and down, exposing neglected corners of the city’s soul. CP