Legendary photojournalist David Burnett turns his lens on his adopted city and plays host to a group of international photographers
After a quarter century in Washington, covering politics and many other things, I decided it was time to plant a foot somewhere else. My wife Iris had cousins in the town of Newburgh, about an hour north of New York City, on the Hudson. We looked around, liked what we saw, and settled on a house there.
The city had a somewhat sketchy reputation; it had fallen hard to the combination of departing industry jobs and the influx of drugs in the eighties. What had been a place once revered for its history and architecture—it was the first electrified city in the country over a century ago—had become a hardscrabble post-industrial town looking for some kind of key to the future. In the last couple of years, though, maybe things were turning around.
In the four years I have lived in Newburgh, it has always been a nice place to come back to from an out-of-town or out-of-country trip. Often when returning, one of the cousins would pester me about being away for so long, and always going somewhere else to take photographs. Why didn’t I do something here?
I have been involved with a loosely-banded collective of photographers called Photographers For Hope for the past five years. It’s an ad hoc gathering of people from very different walks of life, who feel that something should come from photography beyond simply making pictures. The backgrounds are varied: beyond the three professional photojournalists, there are two international communications consultants working with NGOs out of Geneva, a videographer from Delhi, and a commercial airline pilot from Hong Kong. Though our work is diverse, we all share a passion for making pictures, and that passion has drawn us to previous projects in Brazil, Bangladesh, Scotland, and Indonesia. And now, finally, to Newburgh.
A couple of months ago we began researching the city, looking high and low for places and people of interest, in an attempt to have a full slate of possible subjects when the photographers arrived at the end of September. The list ranged from the high school football team to a Mexican rodeo, and from Habitat for Humanity home building to the refurbished city Armory, which houses dozens of programs all week for Newburgh’s children. And then there are the streets, where so much of life in Newburgh takes place.
Most of our group arrived in New York the day the Pope did, so we had to be creative in avoiding traffic shutdowns, but we all made it and began shooting as soon as we had feet on the ground. It was reminiscent of an old-school Life Magazine assignment, where a team of shooters would work intensively for the better part of a week, beginning nightly editing sessions on day four. The editing is always as much fun as the shooting, especially in a group devoid of the petty jealousies that often plague magazine staffs. We all wanted it to be the best it could be. We finally narrowed the selection to about 100 photos, which we turned into an exhibition.
There is in Newburgh a feeling that a revival is underway, fueled by both long-time residents and newbies taking refuge from New York City. Our photographers definitely felt that energy, and we hope the photographs transmit it too.
Top image by Ben Moldenhauer/Photographers for Hope