Renaissance in Harlem

Daniella Géo

Practiced long before, it was only in the 1930s that documentary photography met its social moment - a condition for the definition of its function and diffusion, the perfect ambiance and timing that prepared society to accept it - having its term stated1 and finally emerging as a genre. Since then, its theory has been written and re-written, sometimes even contradictorily, evolving toward what it is today: an approach that finds in the series its possibility of communicative autonomy; that makes use of diverse aesthetic forms; that demands from its authors deep involvement, knowledge and investment of time through research and systematic recording of images, and therefore can offer a sophisticated use of visual language. Since the 1960s, in some of its configurations and discourse documentary photography has been consistently aligned with Art conceptions, inaugurating the art-document dialectic that surpassed the idea of opposition between one another.

Charif Benhelima’s detachment from the notion of testimony through the highlighting of photography’s representational attributes and indexical utopias attains, after Welcome to Belgium2, an original understanding in his Harlem on my mind: I was, I am. Significantly stimulated by Benhelima’s self-proposed challenge to work with the Polaroid 600 film (and camera), this work is both a turning point and a continuation of his documentary approach and creative process.

Averse to artistic formulas and wishing to restart afresh, in 1999 Benhelima initiated his experiments with the instanteneous film - right up to today his main support – embarking on a type of counter-current to the present inclination for digital images and new media. The choice imposed a new relationship with photography, as the amateuristic medium offers little technical control and has a quite distinctive timing. Also indifferent to the contemporary tendency for color photography and the snapshot or official-document-like aesthetics, Benhelima reconstructed his way of seeing by the development of a highly personal style.

Along with the tough, more economic aesthetic, the artist investigated the idea of abstraction, even if figuratively, through the exploration of reflections, counterlight, shadows, bipartite images, and the flou that is characteristic of Polaroid. The images are filled of manifest ambiguity by the documentation of traditional objects of street photography in an indirect, overtly constructed manner. Passers-by, billboards, streets, buildings subsist in the photographs as signs of change. Benhelima proposes a criticism of representation that resides in the very formal and symbolic aspects of the images, which demand of the viewer the revision of his/her own perception.

In Lexington Avenue, a drawn portrait of Billy Holiday, an African-American icon, is seen in a trembling image with an indistinct expression of something between singing and crying out loud. Beauty and sorrow are confounded. The transparency of her features gives her an ethereal quality while letting us glimpse a seemingly old building’s façade and the emptiness of a street. The image overflows at the same time it expresses a void in equilibrium between materiality and the immaterial. In addition, the combination of a pre-existent depiction of the jazz diva and a real background suggest separation, remoteness or, on the contrary, reunion and transcendence. Either way, the photograph – as others of the series - amalgamates various timeframes: the realization of the drawing’s, the photographic act, Harlem’s golden time and the time of the viewer.

Having lived in Harlem for three years, Benhelima was confronted with a certain inversion of roles he was not used to. For the first time his nationality and culture were not opposed by his given name. Ironically he embodied the notion of discrimination face-to-face with the Harlemite community. He was once more an outsider, but now one with a defined identity. Harlem became a mirror from and onto which the feeling of transition experienced by Benhelima was projected. I was, I am implies the artist’s voice, but could as well reflect the updating of Harlem’s history of inequity in its day-to-day present, and the need to constantly mold its image.

Time is a fundamental element in Benhelima’s oeuvre, being remakably explored in the Harlem series from the choice of the reminiscential medium to the traces of time in and on the images to the ending with glossy (mostly) large format Ilfochromes of the day. In Fredrick Douglas BL., a picture of an old man with a hat seated in front of rough walls evokes 1930s imagery while the graffiti and his untied sneakers indicate that it is a near past. Seemingly old at a first glance but presenting subtle contemporary details, the images bring the viewer back and forth to past and present. This time swing also enhances the feeling of transition, gives a sensation of destabilization, obscures distinctiveness, and questions the notion of the real.

Immobility and movement are confronted in E.128th St as the lines on the floor both trace a viable way and sustain a little girl whose legs we cannot see and who is led by someone else. If it might evoke either loss or recovery of balance, it is the equation between them, the search, it is the transition with its instabilities, quarrels and conquests that is rather in question.

The discontinuance of the 600 B&W film drove Benhelima to find a new artistic strategy for the project’s development process: the incorporation of red monochromatic shots. Besides its vividness, quite appropriate for life in Harlem, and the rhythm created by interspersing the black and white and monochromatic photos, the red color generates paradoxical allusions such as brutality and passion, fever and bloodiness. In W. 145th St., the combination of the intense red and a light that apparently derives from the front of a laughing woman creates a mystical aura. On the other hand, this same light – being a reflection – exposes the genesis of the photograph, an image forged by interventions on a pre-existing depiction. As a representation from a representation the image announces a possible fallacy: reality – and history - is a construction and depends upon the way each one of us perceives it.

Harlem on my mind: I was, I am is more than a portrait of New York’s emblematic neighborhood. Rather, it questions its very representations. By poeticaly revisiting the past, Benhelima echoes the need to critically re-think alterity, the self, the surrounding.

  1. In film, the term first appeared as the definition of a genre in a 1926 review of Flaherty’s Moana (1926) written by the British theorist and filmmaker John Grierson. In photography, similar usage of the term was first applied in 1928 in France and Germany and around 1930 in the United States.

  2. A 9-year photographic research project (1990-1999) in which personal experiences and a 20th century History of immigration to Europe are interwoven through the documentation of ordinary daily scenes of people of different cultures living in Belgium. Rather than the events, the work aims to represent the feeling of being a foreigner. Benhelima Charif, Welcome to Belgium, Ludion, Ghent-Amsterdam, 2003.