rediscovered photographs of staten island’s teen tribe
After moving out of Manhattan in the early 80s, Christine Osinski roamed around Staten Island in the summer time, photographing its youth among the open streets and empty lots that make the borough so unique.
In the beginning of the 80s, photographer Christine Osinski was living in Manhattan, in a multiple-use building that housed "a ballpoint pen factory, a fabric place, and about ten other artists." When the building was sold to developers, Osinski and her husband looked far beyond the borough for their new home, having spent eight years living in the city. "We were looking in some tough neighborhoods, at first in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Then somebody mentioned Staten Island. We had always taken the ferry in the hot weather, but never got off it."
Staten Island has a nickname: the "Forgotten Borough." That moniker isn't merely derived from NYC residents who -- due to its relative isolation -- quite often forget it's there (unless the Wu Tang Clan is blasting or that one Sex and the City episode is re-running on TBS). The city government has a history of memory loss, too. So often, Staten Island has been used as New York City's storage unit -- a repository for all the infrastructural stuff just can't be accommodated in the smaller and more densely populated boroughs. The nickname became more grimly literal in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when the island was devastated and left largely without government aid.
"Staten Island was, and still is, very different from the other boroughs," said Osinski. "It's so close to lower Manhattan but it was so separate, so isolated." Eventually, she and her husband bought a house in 1982, and after they spent months and months restoring the property, it was summer. "I began to walk around Staten Island and carried my 4x5 camera with a tripod, film, and a lot of heavy equipment because it was a way for me to explore the new borough," said Osinski.
Osinski's large format film photographs capture a world away from the mobs of pedestrians and towering skyscrapers that fuel the City that Never Sleeps' frenetic pace. Her portraits of tourists and neighbors -- of suburban homes, wide open streets, vacant lots, and summer listlessness -- lend a new view into Staten Island's uniqueness. After being unpublished for years, the images are now collected in a book: Summer Days Staten Island. "I guess what happened was -- along with the weight of the camera -- I was also carrying the weight of my own personal history and bringing it to the pictures as well."
Tell us about that personal history -- what you connected to in your new environment.
I was immediately drawn to what I was seeing in Staten Island, having grown up on the southside of Chicago in a working class family. New York is very different from Chicago, but I still recognized that people being from the working and lower middle class struggling to have a good life -- to take care of their families, take care of their houses, their neighborhoods. What was also interesting at the time was the clash of the old and the new in Staten Island. There was a lot of new development going up at that time; but there were many people fixing up old houses or people that had lived in for generations in the same houses. So it was interesting to see things living side by side until finally the old gave way to the new.
How did that dynamic compare to the rest of New York City at the time?
In Manhattan, you would see two people from the extremes of the economic ladder trying to cross the street at the same time in pouring rain, and they were kind of like equal in that moment. In Staten Island, there was not such a clash of classes or cultures at all. There are people that have money there, but they're in very small pockets and not as seen as they are in Manhattan. There were very few homeless people. So you're talking about a much more homogenous group of people on Staten Island.
The majority of your subjects are children or teens. Why capture the borough's younger generation?
There is something to be said about youth. Even the saddest picture of a young person is still is hopeful, so it's kind of future-looking. But in the summers, if I went out in the afternoon or sometimes like early evening, the majority of the people out were children. They were on their own looking for things to do, meeting friends.
Was your approach to shooting youth more of an observational relationship, or did you immerse yourself in their activities and community before taking photographs?
Everybody I photographed was a stranger. I'd say in at least 95% of the pictures in which I photographed people, I never saw those people again. It was a project about walking around and discovering neighborhoods and discovering people, so I kind of functioned as an itinerant photographer. When I was growing up, there were photographers that would come through neighborhoods slowly; every year, one would come with a pony and a big camera kind of hollering as he walked down the street. My sister and I had our pictures taken on this pony -- that kind of practice was more common when I was growing up. I guess because it was familiar to me from my childhood, that's kind of how I functioned. I was this photographer just walking around with a big camera exploring.
I also liked the idea that the camera would enable you to either discover something or to meet people; it made me less shy. When I went to art school, I started as a painter, but I felt very isolated to be in a white room by myself, painting. So that's actually when I turned to photography because it was a way to be out in the world, seeing what was going on, and still being a practicing artist. It's so nice in to be out in the summer light, and to have this kind of neighborhood interaction -- I think that if it's done right, people appreciate being paid attention to.
What role does clothing play in the images?
That's a very interesting question, nobody's ever asked me that. This is kind of a general answer, but a lot of photography offers descriptions the way a writer might describe a character. I think that in both cases, if I was a writer or if I was a photographer, the job is really to try to describe the person as fully as you can with all these details. I do think that any photograph from a specific time period will either conjure up memories for people, or some people might think of them as being nostalgic, but I would hope not because my intention of getting these pictures out was never nostalgia at all. I tried to make the pictures reflect the harshness or the toughness of the situation. I would hope they're not sentimental, but descriptive.
What do you hope people take from the book?
I think every person has a special window into a part of the world, given maybe your childhood, or where you grew up, or what you carry with you. I feel like, if an artist does her work well, she is able to transmit something about a certain location or a certain group of people because she does have a certain insight into it. It's not like a photojournalist who drops into a culture and photographs for two weeks and then leaves. I do think I understood something very profound about Staten Island, so I hope it's a meaningful look at that time period and an appreciation for Staten Island without making it romantic, but also not being critical.
Summer Days Staten Island is available here.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Christine Osinski