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Tales From the Turnpike: Photographer offers a community portrait

Posted on 06 March 2009

If there’s anything about life that is consistent, it’s change. Generations come and go, and with them, so does the knowledge of what existed before — the people, things and places that defined a community. Though in a single glance, it seems as immovable as a mountain, time alters reality in every community, turning it first to memory and finally, if no one’s there to catch it, forgotten history. It’s as true in big cities as it is in small towns.  

Photographer Kathryn Szoka has long been inspired by the East End landscapes. She first turned her lens on the working farms and open space vistas of the area back in 1983 and with her “Vanishing Landscapes” series, has chronicled the changing face of the East End rural environment in the years since.

But recently, it’s other faces that Szoka has become interested in — those of the individuals who live in the places she documents. For the past six months or so, Szoka has been immersed in a new project that has taken her to neighborhoods along the Bridgehampton Turnpike where she has been photographing those who live, work, go to school and worship in the hamlet.

“I’ve gone to pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners,” says Szoka. “One highlight was inauguration day at the school where the kids were watching on the big screen. It was a moving experience to be there on inauguration day.”

Among the subjects Szoka has photographed are the children at the Bridgehampton Day Care Center, Barbara Person, the organist at the First Baptist Church for the last 40 years, and William and Brenda Pinckney. William’s parents once owned the Pinckney Inn, a tavern and restaurant on the Turnpike which closed down in the early 1990s.

“It opened in the late ‘50s and was a real hub of activity for the community,” says Szoka. “They had live performers. I saw a copy of the menu, they served 50 cent drinks. That place used to rock.”

On March 5 Szoka came to the Bridgehampton Historical Society (2368 Montauk Highway) to offer residents a first look at some of the images she has taken in the Bridgehampton community. Szoka, who is working on the project in conjunction with the Bridgehampton Historical Society, began shooting after receiving a grant last spring from the J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation. She notes the idea for the project came about as part of the historical society’s mission to focus on life in Bridgehampton today. 

“The director, John Eilertsen, decided their archives needed to represent the community as it is,” explains Szoka. “The African American community has pretty long roots there, a century or more. It was his idea to conduct both oral histories and photographic documents of the contemporary Bridgehampton.”

“The working title of the project is ‘On and Around The Turnpike: Bridgehampton Today.’ The idea in John’s mind was to get photos and histories of people in the community now, focusing on the elderly if possible,” explains Szoka. “You want their witness in the archive going forward. The most history can be found there.”

While the historical society’s methodology and timetable for conducting the oral histories has yet to be determined, Szoka is already well on her way to realizing a photographic exploration of the community. She cautions that the project is still in its early stages and envisions tonight’s presentation as an opportunity to solicit feedback on the work she’s produced so far. Szoka is also actively searching for new funding sources to continue the project, and currently, a full exhibit of her portraits is planned for next fall. She finds this project is a logical extension of her inspiration in recent years.

“It fits in with the context of my work,” says Szoka. “In many respects I photograph things in transition. People and details of life which one could say is in transition. I’m also involved in a project called ‘Green and Black,’ photographing my mom’s hometown, a coal mining town in eastern Pennsylvania. 

“It’s all about community,” she adds. “What’s special about different areas — it’s the capital of community instead of the capital of dollars.”

One of Szoka’s favorite places to shoot has been at the First Baptist Church on the Turnpike. She has gone to a number of services, spent time with church staff and parishioners and even photographed an adult baptism.

“I’d never been to an adult baptism before — that was remarkable,” says Szoka. “I felt privileged to be able to be there.”

“They’ve embraced the project from the get go,” says Szoka. “The first few services, I just went and didn’t photograph. I feel it’s important to spend the time in a community to get the pictures you want.” 

During her photographic sessions, Szoka also had an opportunity to hear stories. Many of the African American families she has talked to in Bridgehampton can trace their arrival on the East End from southern states.

“For a number of people I talked to, the ancestors were migrant workers from villages and towns in Virginia,” says Szoka. “A few came from Florida — their parents or grandparents worked all the big farms around here. There was a point that they decide to move here permanently.”

“One woman, Alice Darden — she’s 98 — was from Virginia and she said part of the reason she moved here was because the cotton industry collapsed. The work they had there was no longer. They decided to stay here.”

“The spirit of the older people is strong and invigorating,” adds Szoka. “It’s really terrific to sit with people and feel their life force.”

While Darden represents the oldest Bridgehampton resident Szoka has photographed to date, her work spans the gamut, and includes people of all ages.

“I’m trying to not concentrate on any one age range. I want to have a cross section as I go forward with the project,” says Szoka. 

Interestingly enough, some of the younger generations in Bridgehampton have been forced by finance or circumstance to return to the places their ancestors may have originally left for a better life up north. 

“Some see a cyclical aspect to what’s happening,” says Szoka. “Children and grandchildren are moving back down south. Their ancestors left the Jim Crow south for work and to have a less discriminating area to live in, but now because they can’t afford to live here, they’re going back south.”

Economic issues and natural patterns of familial movement as children grow, leave school and start lives of their own dictates that change in Bridgehampton, like everywhere, is inevitable. The goal, notes Szoka, is to capture what can be found today.

“The community has a very rich cultural heritage that we will all be enriched by,” she says. 

“I’ve learned many things. Every time I sit down in someone’s living room or kitchen and hear about their life, I’m enriched. I learn about their stories.”

Top: Szoka’s photo of Bridgehampton resident Ava Mack at the 2008 Bridgehampton School graduation ceremony.





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