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Down and Out In Paris and Los Angeles : The Documentary Work of Emerging Star Suzanne Stein

By El Ratón Automático-The 3Nines Arts 

Look up. What do you see? Millions of stars in a black sky?

It is a bit like photographers. They are everywhere across social media, on Twitter, on Instagram, and on Facebook. But here, amidst this rapidly expanding photographic universe, there are a few brilliantly lit stars.

One of the big finds, for me, in 2018 was New York-based Suzanne Stein, a skilled, and brave, documentary photographer working the streets of Paris and the dangerous community of Skid Row, Los Angeles.

Little Girl in Paris ©Suzanne Stein

A little girl looks straight down the lens as she sits homeless, her mother behind her seems despairing as she stares at the ground. The mother looks melancholic as rays of sunshine illuminate her haunted face. The child with a sliver of hope in her dark eyes, the mother completely crushed.

Stein's ability to get down to street level and take these shots bring us closer to our subjects. We feel as if we could almost reach out and touch the little girl, while a circle of sunlight playing on the child's hair could be the halo of an angel.

The work is almost religious, no room at any inn, no roof to protect from the elements. This is a beautifully composed shot that brings home the terrible plight of the homeless and their children.

Whose idea is it that some of us should merely be consigned to existing on this planet? Denied a real life and opportunity?

Little Girl with Doll in Paris ©Suzanne Stein

Suzanne Stein also captures the loneliness of people who live out on the streets. Deserted by society they are left to sleep on a cold concrete mattress with nothing but a doll for company.

Again at street level and again staring straight down Stein's astute lens with night as a gloomy backdrop, she takes us straight into the world of the homeless and walks us around their territory. We can almost feel a chill breeze as we study this photograph, it resonates with all the ingredients of greatness.

Spending time in Skid Row, Los Angeles, Stein gained the trust of her subjects to complete an amazing series of photographs.

Her work on Skid Row takes in all the grotesque brutalities and tender beauty of living homeless in one of America's largest communities of people without a proper roof over their heads.

Love Portrait ©Suzanne Stein

Taken in a tent on the sidewalk of Skid Row this is an amazing shot of lovers. Stein's composition is a beautiful reflection. Even in a world which has collapsed into homelessness, mental health issues, addiction, gangs and violence we can still find 'love' and 'tenderness'.

"I immediately started shooting pictures," she said in the caption beneath the photo on her website. "All of this intensity inside the tent was a secret world that only they inhabited..and me too for a time."

In an area of destitution and despair Stein plucks out an absolute gem. The lovers are both in the foetal position and safe within the thin membrane that is the tent, keeping them safe, time being, from all the dangers of the Skid Row only a heartbeat away.

These two, positioned as they are, are like twins. Stein creates a beautiful metaphor for that childlike security of being in the womb, of being at peace, before we are thrust into a world that, for many, doesn't seem to care.

Difficult to imagine that in the midst of the danger, muggings and theft so common on Skid Row - and Ms Stein carried expensive gear with her - she became trusted enough to take this great shot.

Wonderfully composed and searingly intimate this photograph, taken in a tent on Skid Row is a documentary classic, like Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother. This, for me, puts Suzanne Stein among the best documentary photographers out there at the moment.

Preparation ©Suzanne Stein

This must count as one of my favourite photographs of 2018. Again taken in Skid Row, Stein gets up close and personal with Christine. The photographer informs us Christine, a dug addict, tops up on smallish amounts of heroin frequently so she can keep her wits about her to contend with all the pressing dangers of living in this part of Los Angeles.

Despite the despair and destitution, Stein's photographs show the symbols that allow those down on their luck to hold on to their humanity. Christine sits on her suitcase (all her possessions in the world) in an effort to prevent theft. A man in a wheelchair flies the American flag, to signify his eternal belief, perhaps, in the 'land of the free'.

On 4th and Crocker ©Suzanne Stein

The sidewalks on Skid Row are like refugee camps. Those who are lucky enough have tents to keep out the worst of the cold at night.

Stein stumbled across this young man on 4th and Crocker. His nails painted blue, he smoked crack as she shot him seated by the side of the road. She was sure he needed medical services, but that was the same for many of the residents she shot down there in Los Angeles.

If documentary photography is anything, it is there to inform, present us with knowledge and make us increasingly aware of the world we live in. It is an effort to visually understand how the world is organised and operated, and who are out there in the world, the rich, the poor, the mad and the sick.

Stein's documentary work has class and we can tell immediately that she is a natural storyteller. She unfolds before us the realities of life at the very bottom of French and American society in all its colour and all its emotions.

Whatever happened to the liberty, fraternity and equality of the French republic? A bleak representation of the reverse of the American Dream and those left behind.

Stein presents a powerful series of photographs with a narrative of homelessness, destitution, despair, edged with the beauty and simple tenderness of humanity. That is what gives Suzanne Stein extra candlepower in the wide expansive sky of photography.

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Monday, 26 October 2020
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