Telling Other People’s Stories: Lydia Harris on Documenting a Mid-Century Modern Neighborhood in Atlanta
Georgia Tech student design, from “The Passing of Collier Heights,” by Lydia A. Harris. Image courtesy of Lydia A. Harris.
I first came upon the work of Lydia Harris at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2014. Among the works I was fortunate to see in the two days I visited the school, was a large artist book by Lydia Harris titled, The Passing of Collier Heights. In it, Harris documents the neighborhood of Collier Heights in Atlanta, Georgia which consists “of approximately 1,700 single-family homes in 54 separate but interrelated subdivisions on over one thousand acres.” [i] Collier Heights isn’t like any other cookie-cutter neighborhood in the United States, it is a designated Local Historic District in the City of Atlanta and also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Furthermore, Collier Heights has the distinction of being one of the first communities in the nation planned and designed by African-Americans for the newly emerging African-American middle class of the 1950s. Designed in 1948, Collier Heights is not only known for its noted residents—which include Civil Rights activists, attorneys and politicians such as Martin Luther King, Sr., Donald L. Hollowell, Spelman College professor Christine King Farris (and sibling of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney—but also for having an outstanding collection of mid-century modern houses designed by African-American architects and builders. “During Jim Crow, when owning a home was a civil rights victory unto itself, neighborhood residents made full use of their hard-won residences,” writes Lydia Harris in her statement concerning her work in Collier Heights. “These photographs suggest how facades and recreation rooms (with furniture, home design, objects, and décor) expressed one style of African American domestic life in midcentury Atlanta,[ii]” she continues.
Lydia Harris has exhibited her work in many venues throughout the country, including the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, Fort Point Art Community Gallery, Griffin Museum of Photography and the University of Maine Museum of Art. The Passing of Collier Heights is available by print-on-demand.
I spoke with Lydia Harris over the telephone on Saturday April 16, 2016 to discuss her work in Collier Heights and her experiences making the book The Passing of Collier Heights. Lydia’s photo essay in Southern Spaces Journal (which I have linked here) includes many resources listed at the end, should you be interested in learning more about Lydia Harris’ work or the neighborhood of Collier Heights.
“When my brother, Martin, was taken from us, Vice President Nixon paid a visit to my father on Dale Creek and said: ‘Oh, I think this is what you call a Split-Level.’” Christine King Farris, Professor at Spelman College. Larchmont Drive. From “The Passing of Collier Heights” by Lydia A. Harris. Image courtesy of Lydia A. Harris.
Anulfo Baez: Lydia, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me about your work. First, I just wanted to congratulate you on the work you have done with your book on Collier Heights. As you know, I first came across it while serving as a juror for the Graphic Arts Area Awards at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 2014. I should probably speak for myself, but having been part of the selection of winners and discussing your work with the other jurors, I can’t help but say that we were all very impressed with the work you put into your book. How did you end up in Collier Heights?
Lydia A. Harris: I had gone to photography school in Maine for a year, and there I found myself using a 4×5 camera. I had gone in using digital and my teacher challenged me to slow down and use a 4×5 camera. So I did that. He also challenged me to do street photography using a 4×5. Once I got out of school, I ended up driving down to Atlanta because a friend of mine had bought a house in this neighborhood. On the way there, I stopped at a few friends’ house and did photography in the streets and made portraits, and then I got to Atlanta. I was tired of going up and asking strangers to have their photo taken, so my friend suggested that I contact her neighbors and so I did. I didn’t know much about the history of the neighborhood, but once I started taking portraits of a couple of her neighbors, they started telling me about the Collier Heights neighborhood and I started doing a little bit more research and started contacting more people and that’s how I got there.
AB: I wasn’t aware that your photographs were shot using a 4×5 camera, so that’s pretty cool.
LAH: I think it’s a process that actually helped me get access to people who are in their seventies and eighties for a couple of reasons. They were familiar with the cameras, and the process takes a while so I got to know them, and got a chance tell them my story. You know that really weird concept of digital, taking a really quick photo and not getting to know your subject, I grew a little weary of that. They wondered why I, a person from Massachusetts was coming to take pictures of them.
AB: Tell me about your process in creating the book. There is a lot of information in it, where did you start?
LAH: As I mentioned, I started out doing portraits. The second time I went down there [to Collier Heights], I learned that there was a neighborhood meeting and my friend asked if I could go in her place. So I did and I ended up learning even more about the neighborhood. In that meeting, I learned that the neighborhood was going through a historic designation process and they were talking about what their next steps were, in getting historic designation. They were talking about needing to take pictures of their houses and at the end of the meeting, I sort of said, “well, if you guys let me take pictures of you, I’ll take pictures of your houses for you.” And they sort of thought that was a great idea. It ended up that I really never ended up taking pictures for that project for them, but they were very gracious in letting me make portraits of them. So, to answer your question, I started really doing portraits and I did some for about two years and I got to know people and learned more about the neighborhood. I would do research when I was home, would go online trying to figure out what the history of the neighborhood was, and I would start finding things like articles written up about the neighborhood. Some of the people in the neighborhood are pretty famous, so I did some research that way and eventually I got to know people enough to be invited inside their homes, and they would let me take pictures inside. I started the MFA program and people encouraged me to start doing interviews, so I started doing that, got a lot more information and started connecting the dots. That led to interviewing more people and more research. I ended up with all this archival material, learning about the neighborhood and going back.
AB: While a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, did you find yourself going back and forth between Boston and Atlanta a lot for this project?
LAH: Yeah, I probably went down at least four or five times each year, maybe for a three-year period.
AB: So as a result of this project, do you find yourself photographing more architecture, or people?
LAH: Well, what’s interesting is, I ended up starting to do video as well, and I have archival video about the neighborhood, sort of documenting it. When I got out of school, I was really, really sick of taking pictures, so I stopped for a while, but now that I am a year or so out, I am beginning to make images about small buildings and the people that hang in them. It’s funny because my next project is actually still combining both buildings and people and how they relate to structures. Along with Giana Stewert, I had an exhibit at the Fort Point Community gallery called “Structures of Comfort” and I’m really continuing to explore the concept of how we find comfort in buildings and in the people in our lives and the structures around them.
Hayward Recreation Room, from “The Passing of Collier Heights,” by Lydia A. Harris. Image courtesy of Lydia A. Harris.
AB: In this show at the Essex Art Center, are you still working with the work you did at Collier Heights or have you moved on to something different?
LAH: It’s actually a combination of two things. It’s kind of a combination of the initial project I started from. The Essex Art Center is in Lawrence, Massachusetts and one of the times that I went out shooting on the street, was going into Lawrence. So, I have several portraits of Lawrence residents in that show, as well as Collier Heights, extending the theme of comfort and community and people living and working with each other. Also in that show is work of a neighbor of mine, Susan Bailey, so it’s my neighbor and I in this show about community.
AB: The concept of community plays a big role in your work as an artist and photographer. I’m interested in your experience as a white woman and as an outsider going into Collier Heights—one of the first communities built by African-American planners for the newly emerging African-American middle class in late-1940s Atlanta. How was it going into Collier Heights?
LAH: I had a vast diversity of experiences. I took photos of over 300 people, there were some people who totally embraced me and what I was doing. There was a woman who became a really good friend who really helped me connect with some people. On the other hand, I had people that over the phone would make an appointment with me and when I showed up wouldn’t even open the door. I can’t be sure that it was because I was white. What’s sort of interesting is that the community I live in, it’s a pretty tight community and I kept thinking “well, if somebody from Atlanta came to take photos of me and my house and my neighbors, how would I feel?” This is why this project actually means a lot to me because I was able to reach out of the world that I was in through photography and meet another group of people. It was frustrating at times, but very amazing to be able to do something like this.
AB: Right, you got out of your comfort zone and completely transformed yourself as an artist, but also as a person. It really comes out in the book. Have you had the same experience working in a place like Lawrence, Massachusetts?
LAH: You know, not so much, although taking pictures of people out in the streets is a little bit different, they’re out there in the streets already and you can ask them “hey, I’d love to take your portrait” and they could easily walk away. But when you are trying to really figure out a story and hear the experiences black Americans in the 1950s and you know, some people don’t want to share that and some people do. So it’s a completely different situation. On my next project, I am very fascinated with garages and people hanging out in them. Just being able to ride along in the summer and see people hanging out in their garages, so I feel like I’m going to have the same issues—going up to strangers, into their property and asking them to have their portrait taken and having people say “why?” So, I hope to be able to bring the book along with me and say, “because I’d like to do something like this” and give voice to a different group of people.
AB: So would this be in Lawrence or throughout New England? What’s the location you have in mind?
LAH: Throughout New England. I’ve traveled quite a bit in the last five years, so I’m just thinking of getting in my car and driving around the area.
AB: Your book could be considered oral history of Collier Heights that also doubles as an architectural monograph since you document many of the mid-century modern houses of the neighborhood. You write in a caption that some of the houses were designed in unique styles, including some that were designed by architects, but that the City of Atlanta did not record any architect’s name on the building permits. Do you happen to know why this was the case in a city such as Atlanta?
LAH: Yeah, the architect I specifically was talking about was Joseph W. Robinson and he actually was not able to get his architectural license because in order to get your architectural license, you needed to apprentice with someone and he had a hard time finding anyone that would work an apprenticeship out with him. He didn’t have his actual license for a while. Eventually he was able to get someone to apprentice with and get his license. One of the first buildings he designed was the fire station, that is right next to the [Collier Heights] neighborhood, which was actually one of the first places that I went to take photos when I first got to Atlanta. Yeah, it was really hard for a black architect to get a license back then and there were just a few in the country.
AB: One of the reasons why your book stuck with me is because you touched—directly and indirectly—on many issues such as race, class, economics among others. You write in your book about the reactions from what you call “white viewers of the project,” and go on to say that when people hear “black housing” they associate it with “grim slum conditions, rural poverty and disastrous public housing.��� What has been the reaction of the African-American community when you show them the work you have done in documenting the lives and architecture of Collier Heights?
LAH: There have been a few different audiences that I’ve shown the book to. One is the neighborhood itself. Some people in the neighborhood asked me how I got the project or why was it that somebody like me, white and from outside the neighborhood was able to do this project. I thought that was an interesting question, “Huh! Nobody gave me this project, I actually did it and I’m actually surprised that someone from Atlanta hadn’t done it before.” So that was one response. Another response is that people are very happy that the project was done. They’re proud of the neighborhood and they’re proud of what they’ve done.
I would have liked to move into the neighborhood if I could.
[We both laugh simultaneously]
There are other people who don’t necessarily know about the neighborhood, but are also very interested in it. So that was great, to be able to introduce someone to the neighborhood. I was very fortunate when I was at school, Latoya Ruby Frazier came in and did some critiques of our work in class and I showed this project to her and she said “I’ve never known a neighborhood like this and you really need to continue on it,” which gave me a lot of confidence. So I’ve had a lot of different responses from a lot of different people.
Thorpe House on Collier Drive, from “The Passing of Collier Heights,” by Lydia A. Harris. Image courtesy of Lydia A. Harris.
Mildred Thorpe, Executive Secretary – Retired. Image courtesy of Lydia A. Harris.
AB: Another thing I appreciate about the work you have done is that through the interviews you conducted, you take your readers/viewers through some of the changes and concerns happening today in Collier Heights. You mention that Collier Heights has been the victim of socio-economic disparities as well as racist policies which are evident in the suboptimal transportation services as well as basic services such as trash pickup and road maintenance. I’m curious as to why you decided to not document the products of such policies—and by this I mean, abandoned houses, poor road conditions, etc?
LAH: What’s interesting is that when I first read your question I was like “But I did!” I do, I do have all these photos of all these things and I decided to keep it out of this book because I wanted this to be a story of victory. As I am finishing the documentary, I will include these things in there. I think that’s really important and as artists you hope that your work has an impact on someone and it’s been said a million times, but I don’t know how many people are hearing it, things have not changed that much. Things like the bus schedules, if you rely on it to get to work and if now you have to walk a mile to get to your closest bus stop and if you’re still trying to do all the stuff that everyone else does such as taking your kids to school, or making sure someone is there to pick up your kids, it makes it really hard.
AB: It does make sense that you would document these things, but leave them out of the book. Thinking back to the book and knowing what you just told me, I think it would have been a different experienced for me, had I seen all these photos included in the book. I’m glad you are working on this documentary and you will include these images in it and address these issues that have been going on at Collier Heights. How far into this documentary are you in and when can we expect it to see it?
LAH: I took the forty or so interviews that I did and went through them all and did a rough cut. I hope to be able to have a chunk of time in the summer. I may have to go back to Atlanta to get some more b-roll [supplemental footage for flexibility in the editing process] so that’s going to take some time, but I’m thinking January 2017 [to have the documentary ready for viewing].
AB: Right now your book is published on demand. I remember when you exhibited many of the photographs published in your book at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Thesis Show, you were interested in looking for a publisher to publish your book. Is publication still a goal for you?
LAH: I’m still interested in getting it published. I’ve been applying to different publishers and I’ve also considered printing it myself, but then there’s the issue of actually getting it out there.
AB: That’s great. Anything else you’d like to add to this interview?
LAH: I recently heard that to have meaning, history must have both occurrence and narrative. Although I was not part of creating this history, I am proud to be part of creating the narrative through images, a book and video. Many of us have heard about the great black American figures that lived in the neighborhood such as Hamilton E. Holmes, Ralph Abernathy, Leroy Johnson, Geneva Haugabrooks, Martin Luther King Sr., Herman Russell, and Asa G. Yancey, just to name a few. However, when I recently visited Iris Williams and she commented upon seeing her words in my book, “I really was part of history” – it made me start to think. What if all the people in the neighborhood were not brave enough to step out of their comfort zone and move into this neighborhood, to go north to get an education, to stand up for civil rights? What instills a sense of bravery in people and how can we do that now?
I think we can start with the concept of being curious about the way other people live, it’ll just make your life so much richer. I thank you very much for being interested in this book and helping to tell the story.
AB: Thank you so much for making great work and for being a part of this.
[i] “Brick by Brick: Atlanta’s Collier Heights,” Southern Spaces Journal, April 20, 2016. Accessed April 22, 2016.
[ii] Ibid. Southern Spaces Journal, April 20, 2016. Accessed April 22, 2016.