IU professor’s photography project comes full circle

Soon after the brutal murder of Ellen Marks dominated local news headlines in 1986, Indiana University professor Jeffrey A. Wolin started visiting Bloomington’s Crestmont subsidized housing community, known to many as “Pigeon Hill” or simply “the hill.”

Wolin's image of Timmy as a young man, courtesy of the Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago.

Wolin’s image of Timmy as a young man, courtesy of the Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago.

He began taking photographs of the people he met there, where his presence was slowly accepted in the closely-knit complex that can house several generations of families, many of whom can be ensnared in debilitating cycles of poverty, substance abuse, crime or health issues. Marks had lived nearby, as did the man later convicted of killing her.

“For me, part of the project was personal,” Wolin said. “My father grew up on New York City’s Lower East Side and Harlem in poverty, without a social safety net. And in the ’80s, there was a lot of talk about welfare reform. Plus, I’d been a police photographer in Kalamazoo, Mich., for two years after college, so I was familiar with that thin line that is often the only thing separating the ‘cops and robbers,’ as it were.

Wolin's updated image of Timmy, who is now in the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility.

Wolin’s updated image of Timmy, who is now in the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility.

“The realities of class in our culture, that’s what this project was really about.”

Then, in the early 1990s, Wolin received a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to complete his project. But even as he tucked his final images away, he knew he’d return.

His impetus for re-starting that project came two years ago, when he opened his local newspaper and recognized the face of the 29-year-old mother of two who’d been missing for two weeks before her body was found in a cornfield. He’d photographed Crystal Grubb as a child, and was horrified to learn of her death.

In an eerie connection, the man convicted of Marks’ murder all those years ago had just been released from prison, and local headlines were again filled with the grisly details of her death as Department of Correction officials struggled to find a community willing to accept the parolee in their midst.

“I knew I had to go back,” Wolin said. “I knew it was time.”

He began searching for those people he’d photographed more than two decades ago, finding them one or two at a time, many quickly recalling the visitor they’d dubbed “Picture Man” and displaying copies of photos Wolin had taken all those years ago, carefully saved. He began to photograph them again: new babies, birthday parties, neighbors hanging out, those living a more middle-class lifestyle, those in prison.

Wolin’s project, “Pigeon Hill: Then and Now,” will be exhibited at Le Bleu du Ciel in Lyon, France, later this year and again at Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago in 2014. It features the portraits of those Wolin photographed two decades ago alongside their updated images.

One of the most poignant: “Timmy,” whose prints depict a fresh-faced youngster and a dark-eyed young man from his cell in the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility.

“The images delve into another issue, this idea of criminalization of the poor,” Wolin said. “Take Timmy, for instance, who is in prison because he hasn’t paid his child support. He can’t do anything about that in prison. It solves nothing.”

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