Hidden in Plain View - An interview with photographer Hannah Minzloff
Hannah Minzloff, a Dartmouth-based photographer, stands at the foot of Charlotte Street and looks down that shallow concrete canyon with a discerning eye. With her camera slung over her shoulder, you might mistake her for a tourist. But here on this Monday morning, one week into a fortnight-long photoshoot, Minzloff has gone from being an unknown to being a well-recognized and much-appreciated asset to the community.
The merchants and professionals of this once-prosperous main drag – the ones who haven’t yet met Minzloff – will soon have one of those Hollywood moments where the person knocks on their dressing room door and says, ‘They’re ready for your close-up now.’
Oh, wait a minute. Did I say once-prosperous main street? Pardon me. I meant this Once-and-soon-to-be-prosperous-AGAIN main street.
Such is the nature of the Minzloff’s charm, that even those people who routinely set their Facebook privacy settings to double-plus maximum, or the ones who always cover their faces whenever someone points a camera in their direction - they will all agree to pose for Hannah. Most of them will agree without a fight.
“I take 50 to 100 pictures at each location,” says Minzloff without a hint of irony. Like, why would anybody object to her walking in the door and wanting to take their picture 100 times? It turns out that this Minzloff Miracle, where everyone agrees to be photographed, is really about drawing attention to the progression of urban renewal.
“Downtowns lost their hearts when malls were built,” says Minzloff of the urban decay that started a generation ago. “There was a movement of people out of the downtowns as well. And with them went the bakers, and butchers, bankers, and grocers.”
This exodus of a generation to the malls and McMansions of suburbia leads to a low-rent vacuum in the city center. And, explains Minzloff, the way that people fill that vacated urban core follows a standard progression. “Artists are typically the first to move into undesirable spaces,” she says. “They help to make the downtown cool again.”
Hot on the heels of the artists comes a mixture of young adults and older empty-nesters, who add their moneyed gentrification to the emerging cool vibe. “These younger and older people don’t need or want as much space. And many of them don’t drive cars. So they move back downtown.”
Each new cohort of this re-emerging urban population adds value to the downtown. And while this urban renewal process may seem slow, its gravity persists even as the local economy see-saws through high and low. Those people who move back downtown need services and places to shop that are within walking distance. And they especially need those services that support self-propelled transportation.
“Look around,” says Minzloff, with a wave towards Charlotte Street. “It’s happening. Bike repair stores, shoe repair stores, restaurants, cafes, and clothing stores are moving back downtown. Even the Royal Bank, that had moved away, has moved back onto Charlotte Street. I think they felt they needed to be here.”
But, Minzloff reminds me, this is not really a story about economics, it’s a story about people. Or more precisely, people embracing entrepreneurship as a ticket into the chic urban renaissance launched by starving artists.
“My pictures are images of risk-taking,” says Minzloff. “My generation was the first to not have a job for life. Entrepreneurs are the ones who are passionate all their lives – even if they are changing directions.”
And so Minzloff goes door-to-door downtown, not window shopping, but rather pitching a vision of passionate urban renewal - and then asking if she can take 100 pictures while she is there. “Entrepreneurs share a look that says you can do it!” says Minzloff. “They are making a leap of faith. I want to capture that passion. I am documenting that commitment”.
Minzloff’s documentation consists of heavily-layered images that focus on the individual, but surround him or her with the equipment and artifacts of their trade. Minzloff doesn’t choose the single best picture from the 100 she took. She blends them all into a single complex image that is both real and surreal.
“I [photograph] them while they are working,’ she says. “I want them to look at the camera, if they can. I tend to include a lot of their work space and environment in the pictures. Their surroundings tell us a lot about them.”
Then Minzloff shares a secret about Charlotte Street, one that perhaps offers a clue to the meaning of her pictures. “Some of the most interesting stuff that happens on this street,” she says, pointing upwards, “happens in the shops you find on the second floors of buildings.”
“People’s lives,” she says, “are hidden in plain view.”
Soon the hidden lives of Charlotte Street’s entrepreneurs will be in plain view for all to see. Minzloff will the featured artist at the Cape Breton Centre of Craft and Design at 322 Charlotte Street (yes, that Charlotte Street) from Monday, 14 Apr 2014 to Friday, 30 May 2014. The opening reception on Monday, April 14th from 5:30 – 9:00pm.
“I am trying to get people to look at art who wouldn’t normally do that,” says Minzloff, as she sizes up the next business she will enter. “I am trying to get people to think about the future they want. Maybe people who see the pictures will think that they too can be a part of this.”
By Peter Ross
07 Apr 2014
P.S. Hannah Minzloff was a guest at Esplanade Executive Suites