JTF (just the facts): Published in 2013 by La Fábrica (here). Softcover, 144 pages, with 79 black and white and 15 color photographs. Includes essays in English and Spanish by Francisco Goldman and the artist. (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Just beyond the shadows of the shining new Citi Field, between the crumbling expressway flyovers and rumbling airplanes headed for La Guardia, stands Willets Point, a stretch of in-between land that has been colonized by a cluster of auto repair shops, junk yards, chop houses, and scrappers, mostly run by immigrants. Destined to be redeveloped with shopping malls, restaurants, and ancillary services for the stadium, it’s the kind of gritty transitional zone that is vanishing from New York, a place where the dirty work of the city gets done but is no longer particularly welcome. Its warren of specialized garages is like a giant processing facility, where cars are fixed and broken down, salvaged and scavenged, reworked and recycled.
The history of photography is filled with long term projects where photographers have burrowed into marginalized or forgotten communities and told compelling stories of the lives being lived there, and Jaime Permuth’s Yonkeros neatly fits into this mold. His book length portrait of this neighborhood (a word used extremely loosely in this case as there are few permanent inhabitants and even fewer typical city services) brings together images of workers and their families, still lifes of car parts and assorted junk, wider views of the surrounding streets, and close in studies of the work going on inside the garages. Not only does it capture the realities of the place from a variety of vantage points, it does so across the rhythm of the seasons, from the blistering heat of summer to blustery winter days covered in snow.
Given the state of this place, with its muddy streets, its broken glass, and its plethora of rusty auto carcasses, it would have been natural for Permuth to make ugly pictures, ones that revel in the cacophony of its noisiness and the chaos of its decay. But his photographs of Willets Point are just the opposite: quiet, subdued, lushly beautiful in many cases, and consistently and unexpectedly tender and optimistic. A teenager gently fixes a children’s bicycle. An Asian couple poses on a leftover sectional couch, with easy going resolute pride in their eyes. Families gather for an impromptu tin foil wrapped meal perched on a slab of broken concrete. Men in baseball hats bend over open hoods and toil in the shadows, day after day.
As implausible as it might sound, the richness of Permuth’s prints and the delicacy of their tonalities turn the subject matter on its head. Who would have thought that a stack of axles, a pile of discarded side mirrors, a deflated soccer ball, or a rusty chain link fence could prove to be so formally elegant? Yes, there is dirt, and grime, and leaking oil, and seemingly endless mounds of tires, but Permuth has found a way to discover their silver lining, to see the glory in the shine of new spray paint, a freshly cut pipe, or the chiseled muscles holding a sledge hammer.
What I like best about these pictures is how the immigrant experience is seen with supportive positivity. Amid the depressing squalor, there are people of all kinds (Hispanic-, African-, and Asian-Americans at a minimum) working hard, making due, supporting their families, and chasing the American dream. The old timey Pepsi-Cola sign on the gleaming stadium looming in the distance might at first seem like a kind of mockery of this neighborhood, but the faces Permuth has captured are full of determination and dignity, not resignation and defeat. Even in this wasteland where the streets go unplowed after a blizzard, gorgeous pink clouds announce the promise of a new morning.
Collector’s POV: Jaime Permuth does not appear to have gallery representation in New York at this time. Interested collectors should follow up directly via his website (linked in the sidebar).