Local Photographer Captures Red Hook’s Spirit

Home Brooklyn Life Local Photographer Captures Red Hook’s Spirit

Andy Vernon-Jones walked down the cobble stone streets of Red Hook six years ago to drop off his resume for a job at the South Brooklyn Community High School. The neighborhood, surrounded by water and industrial warehouses, was unfamiliar to him at the time, but over the next five years, he became drawn to it and started carrying a camera.

Yaritza. By Andy Vernon-Jones.
He photographed the bold swagger of teenagers on its streets, the detritus left in empty lots, the morning light falling on men at work, and the austere façade of the Red Hook Houses. He just kept taking pictures.

“I’d never considered that documenting a single neighborhood would make a compelling body of work, or would sustain my interest for multiple years. So falling in love with Red Hook and coming to feel at home there and photographing the place all sort of went together. I started carrying my camera when I decided I might be able to make some interesting photographs [in Red Hook]. It was never an arbitrary thing,” says Vernon-Jones.

Red Hook is a neighborhood of sharp contrasts: the stark division between the block of public housing in the  “front” and the low-slung homes along Van Brunt in the “back”; the piers jetting out towards the Statue of Liberty; the mix of homes and warehouses; and a generation of young people sprouting up on streets that still resemble a sea-faring past.

Vernon-Jones snapped hundreds of pictures of the neighborhood, and at a reception on November 17 hosted by Lucky Gallery, he celebrated the release of 64 of them in his self-published book of photography, Here in Red Hook.

“It was a working title for the body of work for a while. I wanted something to connote a little bit of intimacy. Because what I love about Red Hook is the enclosure and the fact that it is closed off by the BQE and has this feeling like the outback of Brooklyn,” says Vernon-Jones. “Just the feeling that it [photography] was coming from here and not ‘I went to Red Hook to take these pictures.’”

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And his photographs do indeed convey a side of Red Hook that outsiders don’t know.

“I think that people see Red Hook as a bad area. The photographs put the neighborhood in a different light and show that it is changing for the better,” says Jacob Dixon who has lived in Red Hook for the last 13 years.

Vernon-Jones has existed on both side of the lens. His job as an advocate counselor at the high school made him part of the community, while his time roaming the neighborhood with his camera in hand put him in the position of an onlooker observing the people and landscape of Red Hook.

A few of his students made it onto the pages of the book. One of his subjects, Malcom, whom he photographed at a bus stop happened to walk into Vernon-Jones’ office at school a year or two later. Malcom has since graduated from South Brooklyn Community High School, but he did return to DJ at the book release party.

Other young people living in Red Hook play a prominent role throughout the book.

“I think that there are not a lot of nuanced representations of black and Puerto Rican young people, and I believe in the possibility of showing a little bit of what I got to learn about the complexity, goodness, and integrity of young people in this neighborhood in my job and in my photographs,” says Vernon-Jones.

For the book cover, Vernon-Jones chose a photograph of two teenagers in over-sized jackets staring directly at the camera. 

“I see these guys as almost gatekeepers standing guard but in a very welcoming way,” says Vernon-Jones.

In a neighborhood where the history is palpable, and in many ways, still untouched, many outsiders become enamored with the panoramic views of the water, the cobble stone streets, and the 19th century grain warehouses, and fail to see the people who inhabit this space.

The young people, in many ways, represent the present-day Red Hook. Brian Zimbler, a friend and former colleague of Vernon-Jones, touches upon this idea in the very beginning of the introduction when he writes, “the young people in these images seem to get it intuitively.”

They have grown up in the neighborhood and know the sound of the foghorn and the familiar faces waiting for the B61 bus to arrive. They have experienced both the rapid change and the inertia.

Vernon-Jones opted to use a medium format camera instead of a digital SLR. And he says that shooting with an old fashioned camera slowed down the process and allowed him to converse more with his subjects.

“It was a very different experience from a digital SLR where you put a lens in somebody’s face if you’re trying to photograph a person. Instead, you’re focusing down here and talking to the person,” says Vernon-Jones.

“Andy has the special gift of being receptive and present,” adds Zimbler.

Much of what Vernon-Jones was compelled to shoot was inspired by the beauty of a moment in time unfolding in front of him whether it was weeds springing up through cracks of concrete or a blue balloon caught on a metal fence in the snow. His eye hones in on the brilliance of the ordinary object or the every day scene.

“The light in Red Hook because it is surrounded by the water is really unique. Sometimes it can just be the early morning light hitting a person,” says Vernon-Jones.

On the street, the photos resonate with people in the neighborhood.

“It shows a lot of character and that people love the community,” says Dixon.

Change comes at a snail’s pace to Red Hook. Its geographic location and shortage of transportation make it feel more like a remote village than a neighborhood in Brooklyn. But, some see these photographs as a fleeting reality.

“It almost seems like it is a documentary of what the neighborhood will be like before it is really gentrified,” says Anthony Cioe.

But, Vernon-Jones recalls a discussion he had with Zimbler about the introduction, and they both decided that “this isn’t just a document of contemporary Red Hook, but asking what is the deeper meaning and how can we be affected emotionally by what we see in these pictures.”


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