For the young photographers who participated in past editions of the Studio Museum’s Expanding the Walls program, the rich and diverse backdrop of New York City has been an extension of the classroom. Under normal circumstances, the eight month-long residency, which invites high schoolers to learn the techniques and history of photography, is an opportunity to roam and experiment freely, testing out newly-learned tools and lessons, exchanging feedback with their peers, and discovering the world through their own lenses.
But for this year’s cohort of students, that experience was abruptly halted in the spring by the mass lockdowns enforced throughout the city, previously the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Unable to meet with their mentors or colleagues in person and largely confined to their homes, the 15 teens completed the rest of the program remotely andnevertheless found inspiration in their unlikely conditions. The photographs they will debut in the program’s first-ever digital presentation, titled Hearts in Isolation — which opens today, July 30 — are stirring reflections on themes of home, solitude, and safety.
Images by Delany Diaz-Tapia, Mariah Chapman, and Jean Espinoza, three students in the program, capture the distinct emotions and domestic ambiances of the slowly-passing quarantine days: a photograph of a woman on a red couch, asleep under an art history book she had been reading and shielded by blooming flowers arranged in decorative vases; a hand pressed longingly against a smoggy window that looks out onto an empty street; a candid portrait taken in the kitchen, amid household trinkets, half-filled glasses, and pantry items.
“Community has always been a key pillar of the Expanding the Walls program,” said Thelma Golden, the Studio Museum’s director and chief curator, in a statement. “This year, the program’s twentieth, the students and mentors faced an unprecedented set of new challenges that redefined that pillar. At a time when home can feel isolating, the program created a critical space for community, and the camera became a tool for students to confront unexpected circumstances.”
Since its inception in 2001, the program has drawn from the archive of Harlem photographer James VanDerZee, housed at the Studio Museum, as a point of departure for the young participants to explore ideas of culture and representation. The eminent Harlem Renaissance artist was especially renowned for his exquisite and intricate portraits of Black New Yorkers; in the 2018-2019 cohort’s exhibition, We Found Us, selections from his archive were installed alongside the student work.
Expanding the Walls participants attend art workshops, discussion groups, and field excursions alongside a group of arts professionals, and they receive a stipend for their completion of the program. The residency is open to teens enrolled in high school or a GED program, and the deadline to apply for the 2020-2021 cycle is October 28.
Hearts in Isolation: Expanding the Walls 2020, organized by curatorial fellows Makayla Bailey and Jordan Jones with Ginny Huo, senior coordinator of teen programs, opens online on July 30, 2020 and runs through July 30, 2021.