Following a tip from a friend one day, photographer Dmitri Kasterine drove 15 miles from his home in Garrison, N.Y., to nearby Newburgh. What he found there was unlike anything he had ever seen before.
Kasterine was immediately drawn to the crumbling Victorian houses, the neglected buildings, and, most strikingly, the unassuming grace of the people on the street. But when he tried to take his first photo, his subject told him to go away. Still, Kasterine returned, and kept coming back for the next 16 years.
“Nobody has ever done quite this,” Kasterine says, “which is to say, ‘Look at these beautiful people.’ “
Now 80 years old, he has just published a book of his work, Newburgh: Portrait of a City (The Quantuck Lane Press, 2012).
When Kasterine first visited Newburgh, he says, he was interested purely in the aesthetics.
“After a while I got friendly with some of the people … which of course meant I found out quite a lot of what was going on,” he says.
Deemed an “All-American City” by Look magazine in 1952, Newburgh began a steady decline. By 1981, it topped a federal list of the most distressed areas in the United States.
In a climate rife with suspicion, Kasterine had to work to gain the trust of his subjects. He promised to bring them prints of the photos he took, and he followed through. It helped, he says, that he looked too old to be a cop.
Kasterine is used to subjects who know how to pose; among the cultural figures he has photographed during his decades-long freelance career are Samuel Beckett, Roald Dahl and Stanley Kubrick. But working with the unsuspecting populace of Newburgh, he says, was easier, in a way.
“They weren’t practiced at putting on a particular face that they thought was the right one for the public,” he says. “And the lovely thing, of course, is there’s no collusion with them or their lawyer or their editor or publicist. There’s no alliance you have to make with anybody except the subject.”
Some of the photos from Kasterine’s book are now hanging on a wall outside the Ritz Theater, one of many buildings in need of repair in Newburgh. It’s part of an outdoor exhibition and was funded, in part, by a crowdsourced campaign on Kickstarter. For those in the downtown area, it’s a novelty to see their lives celebrated, not condemned or ignored.
“It’s a tribute to how they’ve survived,” Kasterine says.
But even after 16 years, he says, the work isn’t done. He still goes to Newburgh every week, and requests from young residents (who want to know why he hasn’t taken their photos yet) keep his mind on the project.
“I’m thinking of volume two already,” he says.