by Carole Verona
Each person you encounter along Germantown Avenue — from the very top of Chestnut Hill to where it ends under I-95 in Northern Liberties — has a story to tell.
Take Fred and Greg, for example. Sitting on milk crates in the 3500 block of the Avenue, they are passing Fred’s one-year old grandson Christopher back and forth between them. That intimate moment is captured by Carolyn Johnson and Ellie Seif and will be shown in “A Walk Along Germantown Avenue,” their upcoming photography exhibit at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts. Their photos are part of a larger show called “Philadelphia Portraits,” which runs from Nov. 17 to Dec. 14. A narrative summarizing their conversations with people along the Avenue will be included with the exhibit.
“Fred and Greg, who is the baby’s godfather, both had tough lives,” said Ellie, “but they were gentle and sweet with this little boy.”
Carolyn added, “Fred started telling me a little bit about his life. He had been in prison several times. He said he took Christopher on his day off was because he wanted his grandson to grow up differently than he had. I asked, ‘What’s different this time?’ He said he had been involved in drugs. The last time he got out of prison, he lost every possible connection to people. He went into a church and just started praying. He stayed there, emptied himself and asked for help. When he came out, he said he was a different person. He now has some of those connections back.”
The idea for the photo project came to Carolyn and Ellie in different ways. In 1999, Carolyn read Elijah Anderson’s book “Code of the Street.” In it, he talks about communities and specifically about the people along Germantown Avenue. “I had the idea that it would be interesting to take a camera and go the length of Germantown Avenue to photograph people,” Carolyn said.
Ellie’s interest in the project dates back to the late 1970s when she was a teacher. She took her students on a trip along the Avenue and had them take photos and write essays about what they had seen.
When Ellie and Carolyn, who have been friends for 41 years, both retired from their jobs, they decided to take a photography course together. “Carolyn said something about Elijah Anderson and Germantown Avenue, and I had been doing a lot of street photography and wanted to do a project about community,“ Ellie said. “We both live within a stone’s throw of Germantown Avenue, one on the east side, one on the west. It just seemed like a terrific idea.”
So the two friends started photographing in Chestnut Hill and went as far south as Chelten Avenue. Carolyn said, “We just found that we loved it. Every time we’d come back from a shoot, we’d be so exhilarated after talking to people and hearing their stories. We settled on photographing just the people, not architecture or institutions, because we are ‘people’ persons.”
Ellie added, “We got engaged in talking to people the entire length of the Avenue. Ninety-five percent of the people welcomed us and talked about their lives. Sometimes we shared about our lives. There was a great openness.”
The process they used was simple and straightforward. “We’d get in our car,” said Ellie, “drive along, stop and just started talking to people. They were very curious. We are not youngsters (Ellie is 72; Carolyn is 71), and seeing these two older women with cameras was interesting to people. In some cases they were protective of us.”
Carolyn and Ellie discovered that there are at least two mosques on Germantown Avenue. “We found out these two mosques are quite different from one another,” said Ellie. “We went back to one of them on Friday at prayer time. We just talked to people and learned so much. In the Muslim area, we went into a shop, and although the shop owner didn’t want us to take his picture, he was willing to talk about Islam. Carolyn asked if had always been a Muslim, and a lot of conversation came out of the connections we made.”
Were the two photographers surprised by anything as they traveled through the diverse landscape from neighborhood to neighborhood? Ellie responded, “I don’t know if this is a surprise, but even though there are cultural and demographic differences, people’s experiences were similar from one end of the Avenue to the other.“
Ellie grew up in Brooklyn and moved to Mt. Airy in 1970. She got her BA in elementary education at Brooklyn College and a master’s in educational media from Temple University. She taught in the gifted program at the McCloskey School in East Mt. Airy and then became a principal in the Hatboro-Horsham School District. Carolyn grew up in Buffalo and received a BA in elementary education from the University of Buffalo and a master’s in arts and administration from Antioch University. She moved to Mt. Airy in 1971. For 32 years, she worked at the National Adoption Center, which she founded in 1972.
“Both Ellie and I got so much out of this project personally,” said Carolyn. “We felt like we had new friends. In that long conversation I had with Fred about his life, he said he was a very committed Christian, so I asked him to pray for my son, who was in the hospital at the time. Fred said, ‘Sit down here; we’re going to do it now.’ He set up two milk crates, and I sat down while he prayed. He was so eloquent, and I got so much strength from that. It was beyond the photography. Personally, we were enriched.”
The Cheltenham Center for the Arts is located at 439 Ashbourne Rd., Cheltenham. More information at www.cheltenhamarts.org or 215-379-4660.