Expanding the Walls: Making Connections Between Photography, History and Community is an annual, eight-month residency in which New York–area high school students explore the history and techniques of photography. Through experimentation, gallery visits and workshops led by contemporary artists, the students build community as each explores and defines his or her art practice. Since the program’s founding in 2001, the James VanDerZee (1886–1983) archives—housed at The Studio Museum in Harlem—have been the primary catalyst for the students’ critical reflections on the representation of culture and community. VanDerZee, the iconic chronicler of Harlem during its renaissance period, documented landscapes and social groups, and cultivated a thriving studio practice that represented an emergent black middle class. Now in its fourteenth year, the program and exhibition continue to be impassioned considerations of VanDerZee’s timeless themes, and testaments to the Studio Museum’s commitment to young, emerging artists.
The title for this exhibition, Vantage Point, is a term that describes a position or place that affords a wide or advantageous perspective. Vantage Point presents the students’ perspectives and awareness of complex power dynamics, definitions of community, internal conflicts and victories. Like VanDerZee, the young artists meticulously construct works that range from realistic echoes of lived experiences to projected narratives that deliberately push perceived societal boundaries. Atzimba Xoyalta’s The Thinker (2014), for example, is an intimate snapshot, photojournalistic in approach, illustrating the self-discovery of youth, while an untitled work by Gabriella Rosen uses the language of film noir to recast everyday people as superheroes. From these diverse vantage points students both collapse and expand the notions of lived and imagined experiences.
Through their engagement with contemporary artists and museum professionals, excursions throughout New York and discussion groups focusing on the impact of art on society, students discover techniques to present their ideas to an intergenerational audience. For this exhibition, Expanding the Walls participants have selected VanDerZee photographs, displayed alongside their own, that resonate with the same sense of performance and production present in their works.