Monday, February 1, 2010

Walls Can Talk

AS the saying goes, there are eight million stories in the naked city. But sometimes what’s more telling is all that those souls leave behind. The remnants of humanity live on in the simple flourishes, banal trappings, shadows cast and layers of paint that decorate the city’s walls.

A collage of smiling graduates through the years. Stacks of expensive sneakers, carefully backlit. A teenager’s trophies. A taxidermist’s trophies. A new immigrant’s hovel, a clock hung still in its box, near a faded family picture from a faraway home.

These are the walls that hold up New York City. They are among dozens of walls I photographed last year as part of the One in 8 Million project in The New York Times, a series of 54 audio interviews accompanied by black-and-white portraits of New York characters (the profiles are online at As I entered people’s homes and offices, penetrated their personal spaces, I grew fascinated with the walls as anthropological records, a way to capture the essence of people without having them in the picture.
You see a lot of disparity among the images: things that are luxurious, like the sneakers, and things that are utilitarian. How much thought goes into some walls and how other presentations are more visceral.
At the Bronx apartment of Tika Chapagai, a new immigrant from Bhutan, behind the clock you can see the layers of paint and imagine those who came before. In the Gravesend, Brooklyn, bedroom of Omika Jikaria, a 
Stuyvesant High School student who has been competing in beauty pageants since she was 5, a timeline of a young life emerges.
Such intimate still lifes are not a new concept; 
Walker Evans created similar photographs of personal objects in the 1930s. We look back nostalgically at those images and say, “What a fascinating world they lived in.” I wanted to apply that to the world we live in now — look how interesting the furniture is, things we take for granted — to try to be nostalgic about the present.

Todd Heisler

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