GLEN RIDGE, NJ — Having a father who was a documentary film producer taught Glen Ridge resident Erika Bleiberg to see life through a lens. Like many filmmakers, her father would make a frame with his fingers, a keyhole as it were, and peer through it to determine what made a small part of the world unique and meaningful.
“I dabbled with photography all my life,” Bleiberg said recently at her Willow Street home. “It was something I wanted to learn.”
But like many interests for all of us, photography got placed on a back burner for Bleiberg, who became a writer. But several years ago, during an employment stint in Newark with the Newark Board of Education, she began taking photographs with her iPhone while walking from the train station to her office. The peripatetic requirements of her job, as she traveled from school to school, opened her eyes to the cityscape even more, she said. And what began as a few pictures taken on a commute became “a full-blown passion” of the city, with thousands of images of Newark architecture collected.
“It became impossible for me not to document it,” she said. “The city focused me. A lot of people look at Newark and see complex urban problems. I see beauty and poetry.”
Even after she had finished her Newark BOE work, Bleiberg continued to return to the city, driving in, parking and photographing. Some property owners or people living in the area, when they saw her photographing a building, thought she represented a Realtor and became nervous. One suspicious minister questioned her extensively for photographing his church. When he became satisfied with her answers and understood there was nothing to fear, he offered her a marketing job. Skateboarders and young adults, hanging out at abandoned buildings that have been made into so-called “graffiti palaces,” were also appreciative of her mission.
“I wander through all the wards,” she said. “I’m adventurous but street-smart. People have either been friendly or indifferent to me.”
After amassing the photographs, Bleiberg kept them stored in her computer. She did not print any for viewing until her brother, Mark, offered her an exhibit at his Cape May restaurant, “The Mad Batter.” The dining place regularly presents art exhibits for its patrons. Using a nickname for the city of Newark, Bleiberg’s exhibit is titled “Hello from Brick City.” But she wondered if exhibiting images a world away from vacationers was a good idea. And her show was hung next to another photographer’s work.
“His were of crashing waves and people enjoying the beach,” she said. “And in the other gallery is the city.”
But the curator thought it was a good idea since a lot of vacationers were coming from North Jersey. Bleiberg found this to be true. She said she has received emails from people whose memories were stirred by pictures of Newark. One woman emailed her because of a photograph of the former Hahne’s and Co. Department Store building in the exhibit. The woman told Bleiberg her high school prom dress was purchased at the store.
At her home this past weekend, Bleiberg displayed a number of images from the exhibit. The colors and textures of Newark architecture were spread out on the dining room table. What is first striking about the pictures is the realization that a city is a collection of parts. Horizontals and verticals capture the eye. Divisions of cement over brick also intrude. And there is beautiful plaster filigree, much of it painted over, decorating the geometry. Bleiberg points to one photograph.
“There are changes constantly,” she said. “This mural is half-gone. Very quickly my images have become historical records.”
There are very few people in the photographs.
“I don’t feel it is my place to photograph people going about their daily lives,” she said.
Some of the photographs are of areas strictly off-limits. One is of the rubble from a demolished industrial site alongside the New Jersey Transit Broad Street Station. Bleiberg wanted to enter the area but thought better. Framed astutely, the photograph is nonetheless arresting.
“Although barbed wire and boarded window are part of Newark, this represents the present and is beautiful and is not to be discredited,” she said.
In April 2016, Bleiberg received a boost to her commitment to high-quality photography. She entered and won the Greater Newark Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s “Quick Click Photo Competition.” Her photograph was of the Prudential Building on Broad Street. The competition was sponsored by Panasonic, and Bleiberg received a Lumix DMC-FZ1000K, a significant camera, as her prize. She said she is learning how to use it but still prefers her small iPhone because it allows her to photograph “under the radar.”
But a Cape May exhibit, while a start, really is still another world away for Bleiberg who hopes to get a showing of her work closer to the city that inspired it. If any money were to be made from an exhibit, she said she would want a percentage to go to a Newark educational non-profit.
“The photographs really belong to the city of Newark,” she said. ”I hope people see the beauty and their city is appreciated.”
Erika Bleiberg’s photography can be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/hellofrombrickcity/photos.