THE PAGAN IMAGE
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"THORPE GIRLS" - Tier II Housing, South Bronx, 1990.

Young girls sit on a stoop in front of the Thorpe Family Residence, a transitional Tier II South Bronx in 1990.
A group of young siblings sit on a stoop at the Thorpe Family Residence, a transitional Tier II supportive housing development in the South Bronx in 1990.

Text / Photography EDWIN PAGÁN @thepaganimage

A GROUP OF YOUNG BLACK GIRLS sit regally on a building's stoop, the oldest with her head tilted up looking straight into the camera. This is one of my images that has become a favorite among photography aficionados, gallery patrons, and collectors alike the last few years. Yet, this particular image went unseen by the general public for nearly 25 years, and was almost entirely relegated to the confines of lost memory. It's an image that has also grown on me significantly since its rediscovery.

In 1990, I was working for a small, short-lived community newspaper called Bronx Life that was published by Ada Torres. Doris Quiñones, who was director of the Bronx Tourism Council at the time also supported the paper, and often co-wrote a column on economic development with Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation (BOEDC) president Cecil Joseph. She also lent her pen to human interest pieces for the paper and I covered the arts and culture beat. She and I would often go out together to cover events or do a profile piece on a community leader or unsung local hero. I benefited from the lifts she provided to my assignment, and in turn, I’d frequently create the images that illustrated her articles.

On one such assignment, we were tasked to profile the work being undertaken by Sister Barbara Lenniger, OP, the founder and executive director of the Thorpe Family Residence, a 16-unit transitional Tier II 'supportive housing' development, located at 2252 Crotona Avenue in the South Bronx. Thorpe had been founded in 1989 by the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill and Sister Lenniger seemed almost purpose-built into the blueprints of the residence.

A stocky Irish woman, Barbara always moved with purpose, and even her side glances conveyed information—'Moving on.' After a cursory tour and interview, Barbara walked me past a laundry room that led back to the exit. She graciously thanked me for coming, greeted the girls sitting on the building's stoop, and retreated back inside to attend to the day's real-world tasks, which included a six-month interview and assessment with one of the shelter’s residents.

As I began to put my camera back into my bag, I was struck by the girl's serene presence, their composure almost regal and somewhat unexpected for a group of children during those tender years. I also noticed the group's symmetry and slowly retrieved my camera. I lined up the shot and took a few snaps, the SLR's clanky shutter giving me away in the midst of their quiet storm. The oldest of the sisters tilted her head back toward the noise and looked up and directly into the lens—into ME—and I managed to take another frame. She held her surreal gaze until I pulled the camera away from my face, smiled and returned her attention back onto the street like a seasoned member of a community watch group.

The image remained unseen until Seis del Sur began preparing for its first group exhibit at the Bronx Documentary Center, and I had provided BDC with dozens of black and white negatives that had been archived for almost 30 years for review and scanning. For years the frame I'd printed had captured the girls making use of the stoop in a composition I found to be more ordered and symmetrical, the more elegant of the sequence of six images I made before leaving. Then, during the exhaustive editing phase, BDC founder, Mike Kamber, called to the say he'd scanned the series and thought one shot in particular was "very impactful." He emailed me a low-rez composite of the image: It was a shot of the oldest of the five girls looking directly into the camera. I was immediately struck by its power. I found myself emotionally reconnected with the young girl almost three decades on, as I remembered how I felt when I took the shot. The large catch-lights in her eyes caused by the vast clouds above us revealing a hint of the things she'd seen but not giving away any of those secrets, and confirming her as an old soul.

I've begun to refer to the image as 'The Thorpe Girls,' for obvious reasons. Because of the nature of the facility and their age, I never asked for their names. And would likely not recall them all these years later. But I'm sure that if shown the image, Sister Leninger would still remember each one, as well as those of their children today. "Moving on."

Since then, Sister Leninger's work has been recognized in many ways, including having another facility in the South Bronx named and dedicated in her honor.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

 

 

Published: 2/18/16.