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South End through a lens: BCA artist in residence captures spirit of the neighborhood

Posted by Christina Jedra  April 29, 2013 11:46 AM

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IMG_8523.jpgPhotographer Edie Bresler with Fred Watson and Bob Beck, two subjects of a portrait from her Exchange Economy project for the Boston Center for the Arts.

Photo by Olga Khvan

Edie Bresler, a Canon camera strapped around her neck and a plastic pinhole Holga camera tucked away in her blue equipment bag, was just wandering down Shawmut Avenue in the South End when her smile caught resident Bob Beck’s attention.

Intrigued, Beck invited Bresler into his home, where he and his partner Fred Watson told the photographer about the history of the neighborhood. 

Nearly three hours later, Bresler left with a photograph of the two — light streaming in from a window, casting a soft glow on the faces of Watson, seated in an armchair, and Beck, perched on its arm.

It was a new experience for the pair, but not for Bresler, the artist in residence at the Boston Center for the Arts. She is documenting people in the South End through photography and finds her subjects by doing something she has always loved — wandering.

On April 6, the portrait Bresler had created of Beck and Watson was one of many hanging on the walls in the lobby of the Boston Center for the Arts’ Artist Studio Building, where she was hosting a community photo day. The two stopped by to claim their photograph, exchanging it for a voucher Bresler gave them.

“We took our calendar and put a big red circle, saying ‘Edie’s Day,’” said Watson. “She’s a very comfortable person to be with. She had a beautiful smile and a very friendly persona. She just looked as though you should say hello and talk to her, so I did.”

Now a Somerville resident, Bresler grew up in New York City, where she and a friend would frequent the Port Authority Bus Terminal or Penn Station, looking for new places to explore.

“We’d say, ‘This is how much money I have. Where can I go and get back?’ and the people at the ticket counter would be like, ‘Is this a joke?’” she recalled.

When she was 13, her mother was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an aggressive muscle deterioration disease. Looking for a way to cope, Bresler turned to photography.

“It became an antidote to what was going on,” she said. “And then it stuck.”

But she did not take a direct path to a career in photography. Her first choice, while attending the University of Vermont, was to major in science.

One day, her chemistry professor questioned her passion for the subject.

“He said to me, ‘When you come into the lab, you’re never as excited about what you’re working on as when you come in after you’ve been photographing. So what do you want to do with your life?’” Bresler recalled. “Nobody had ever asked me that before.”

Bresler dropped out of college, spent six months in Israel, went on to travel around Europe and eventually returned to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts and study photography.

Now, she spends Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays teaching photography and digital imaging courses at Simmons College. 

But on Mondays, Saturdays and Sundays, she walks the streets of the South End, looking for subjects.

One Saturday in April, she stopped by a Syrian grocery store, bought some figs, then tried to engage the owner in conversation. The ambiance was just not right, the scene was not natural enough. Vowing to return, she continued down Shawmut Avenue and stopped at the entrance to Peters Park to watch a man working the grounds with a rake.

“When you’re new to a scene, everybody notices you. The longer you hang out and just watch, people forget you’re there and you become part of the scene,” she said, as she eyed her potential subject.

When Bresler eventually approached South End resident Bernard Petersen, he explained that all the gardening in Peters Park is done by volunteers, motioning to the daffodils he had planted, his “pride and joy.”

Through Petersen, Bresler met and photographed Rolf Frank, the “master gardener,” as Petersen described him, as well as Tom Payzant, former superintendent of Boston Public Schools, his wife Ellen and their dog Jaxon.

“Everybody you meet in the neighborhood leads you to another person and everything becomes familiar,” said Bresler.

While Bresler hopes that an institution will purchase the project, which ends June 15, the real value of it for her is not monetary.

“The best [pictures] are the ones that you can give back to somebody,” she said. “My sincere hope is gifting it back out to the community.”

Back at the Artist Studio Building, Bob Beck and Fred Watson raved that Bresler, though not a neighborhood resident, had captured the “spirit of the South End.”

They admired the collection of portraits hanging alongside theirs —store clerk Yulia at the front desk of a dry cleaning and tailoring place on Shawmut Avenue, local vendor Leo in front of his fruit and vegetable stand, postal worker Peter on his regular route consisting of the South End’s traditional brick row houses.  

The people that Bresler painted were not all residents, but all dependent on the neighborhood for their livelihood. 

They were not all smiling, but all clearly at ease in a moment captured by a stranger.

This article is being published under a partnership between The Boston Globe and Boston University.

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