Margaret Morton’s Humanizing Photographs of New York City’s Homeless Population

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Since 1989, photographer Margaret Morton has been documenting New York City’s homeless residents and their ad hoc dwellings, homes cobbled together from driftwood, tarps, and blankets. She’s befriended communities living in Tompkins Square Park’s tarpaulin village, in the Lower East Side squat Glass House, and in a two-and-a-half mile long tunnel on the Upper West Side.

The city’s homeless population is now at a record high of nearly 60,000 people–its highest levels since the Great Depression. Which makes Margaret Morton: A Retrospective, now showing at the Leica Gallery, feel especially relevant today. The 25 years of photographs on view offer a humanizing look at New York City’s most desperate residents, people on whom many prefer to turn a blind eye.

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“I spent a lot of time in each community, much of it just hanging out, getting to know the people who lived there, and they got to know me,” Morton, a professor at Cooper Union, says. Because she got to know her subjects so intimately, recording their oral histories to use as text for her four books, Morton shed some of her outsider’s perspective, and her photographs expertly avoid voyeurism. There’s none of the sentimentalizing or sad-violin-playing of say, the city photoblog Humans of New York. She carries on a long tradition of poetic documentarians of American poverty, citing Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Berenice Abbott, and Mary Ellen Mark as influences. Phillip Lopate has called her “our modern-day Jacob Riis.”

Instead of highlighting squalor, Morton’s photographs present makeshift dwellings in almost mystical lighting, as creative refuges, triumphs of resourcefulness, some with stellar river views. “The men and women always were working so hard on the dwellings that they had constructed for themselves,” Morton says. Of one Puerto Rican homeless community, led by one Pepe Otero, she says, “Even though these men and women built their own homes in an abandoned vacant lot from materials found along the street, they kept their cultural traditions alive: Salsa music filled the air, people from the neighboring tenements would arrive with instruments on weekends and join them to dance and sing traditional songs. They planted gardens, and kept chickens. These makeshift structures evolved into small villages where the homeless people not only had a sense of security, but a sense of community.” But neither are the images sanitized; many seem to depict haunted, dystopian netherworlds, such as one shot of a rundown garden filled with dolls and stuffed animals. They’re a reminder of the many parallel universes within the city–the Tunnel encampments lie just beneath the luxury condos of the Upper West Side. 

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Morton tells the story of Bernard, who made a home in a 50-block-long abandoned freight tunnel that existed for 16 years before Amtrak workers discovered it. “Bernard became known as ‘Lord of the Tunnel’ because “he was such an articulate spokesperson for the tunnel residents when they were threatened with eviction,” she says. Every Sunday, Bernard served “tunnel stew” at potluck dinners with other tunnel residents. “He’d tell the story of his earlier days, how he came to live in the tunnel, his strategies for surviving the winters underground, and how he nurtured a seed that unexpectedly fell through an overhead grate and sprouted in front of his underground home,” Morton says. The Tunnel community continued to thrive as more homeless encampments around the city were destroyed. 

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It’s her sensitivity and focus on resilience, community, and individual stories that let Morton challenge pervasive stereotypes about the homeless. “The biggest misconception about homeless people is that they are living on the streets because it is their personal choice,” Morton says. It would be hard to really look at these photographs and hold on to some idea that homelessness is a result of laziness, for example. “The economic, political, and social shifts that precipitated the massive dislocation that we see today are complex, but they are not about personal choice.”

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All photos courtesy Margaret Morton.

Margaret Morton: A Retrospective is on view at Leica Gallery until August 22nd.

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