Photographer John Nowak began exploring Atlanta’s midtown neighborhood almost immediately after moving there in 2007. Camera in tow, he sought out the personality of his new city. What he found was a place still struggling to find its identity 40 years after the Civil Rights movement and more than 10 years after the Olympic games promised to revitalize its economy.
The city has prided itself on being “too busy to hate” since Mayor William Hartsfield coined the slogan in the 1950s. But Nowak points to 2010 Census data that showed Atlanta had the largest disparity between the rich and poor, illustrating that racial, social and economic barriers were still firmly in place.
“I consider the pictures in my project to be portraits of character,” Nowak says. Ponce de Leon Avenue, one of Atlanta’s major arteries, captured his eye.
“The street itself seems banal at a glance, but on a second look, it enticed me with its sprawling influences and heady tales,” Nowak says. “The area itself is somewhat infamous to locals, but if a visitor took a drive down the main corridor, I don’t think anything in particular might catch their eye at first glance."
Ponce de Leon gave Nowak a glimpse into the mixture of people who make up Atlanta. “The derelicts and thieves, the white collar customers and corporate restaurant clones. Atlanta’s most historic and disgraced walking openly with the new front of business and gentrification for all to see.
“When I started photographing, it wasn’t necessarily conflict or long-term resolution that I was interested in. It was community journalism. When you’re young, the vets were always telling us to document your surroundings, and that’s exactly what I was doing. Newspaper life has a hard way of leaving you. It was compulsive,” Nowak says.
He fell back on his training as a documentary photographer, traveling the streets and taking photographs, talking with the people he met during his explorations. Nowak says he tried to make himself known to the locals so they would accept him and eventually ignore him.
The recession left many buildings along the avenue half finished or abandoned.
“I remember watching a ragged man carefully approach the back side of a vacant apartment complex,” Nowak says. “He looked around and noticed me. We stared at one another for a moment, and then he turned away, deciding I wasn’t a threat, and disappeared into the warm blackness, closing the door behind him.”
“This project is how I’ve witnessed the city grow and erode in the new millennium,” he says. “Through documenting the street and the people, I see a glimpse into both the metropolis tragedy and its many overnight cures. People have asked me when I would be finished with the project. I tell them five years ago I thought it might be done in two. As long as I’m here, I don’t see any reason to stop. Your heart will tell you when it’s had its fill.”
- Cody McCloy, CNN