Observance, an exhibition by The New York Times’ James Estrin

James Estrin is best known in photography circles for his work on Lens, a photography blog at The New York Times. But the editor is also a senior staff photographer, and next week, for the first time in 20 years, he will be showing his own work – a project called Observance

Olivier Laurent — 3 January 2014

Members of St. Paul’s Church embrace at a seaside Maafa ceremony in Queens, in observance of the those who died during the Middle Passage and in slavery in the United States. 2004 © James Estrin / The New York TimesMembers of the Duke Ellington Orchestra play on the A train in Manhattan. 2009 © James Estrin/The New York TimesMarge Marcone saying grace over her hot dinner, which was delivered to her Bronx apartment by Meals on Wheels, a charitable organization. 2004 © James Estrin / The New York TimesSheikh Reda Shata, an imam, blesses a newborn child at a Brooklyn hospital Hospital. 2005 © James Estrin / The New York TimesJewish men perform the mikvah bathing ritual in a stream at a Jewish spiritual retreat. 2005 © James Estrin / The New York TimesKali worshippers at a Trinidadian Hindu Temple in New York City, 2005 © James Estrin / The New York Times

James Estrin is usually the one writing about new photography exhibitions. The senior staff photographer and co-editor, with David Gonzalez, of The New York Times’ Lens has presented the work of hundreds of photographers, often for the first time, in the four years since the blog’s inception. This month, however, the spotlight is on him as an exhibition of his work goes on show at the Milton J. Weill Art Gallery, 92nd St Y Center in New York. He answers BJP‘s questions.

BJP: The exhibition is called Observance. Has this been a particular project you’ve been working on, or is it a curated exhibition of images you’ve taken over the years?

James Estrin: I’ve been interested in photographing spiritual experience for pretty much all of my photographic life. Whenever I can, whether by assignment or through my own story ideas, I try to make photos around the subject. About half of the photos were taken in 2005 during a three-month personal project published in The New York Times. The rest were taken between 1999 and last year during various assignments for the Times.

BJP: What can we expect to see in the edit?

James Estrin: The images were taken in a variety of spaces including churches, synagogues, mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, in prison, at a kitchen table and in a childbirth suite. There are also photos of a 9/11 memorial service and of musicians performing on a subway train. I hope that together they reveal the search for transcendence as an essential part of the human experience. While religious rituals are visually lush, spiritual experience is interior and hidden. The challenge for me is capturing the essence of an invisible event.

BJP: What made you look at that particular subject in the first place? How important is the spiritual experience for you?

James Estrin: I did not grow up particularly religious but I have always searched for transcendent experiences. I think that striving to encounter the divine, in whatever form or fashion, is integral to being human. And experiencing different realities is critical in the search for meaning in life. I have had the opportunity to be in hundreds of houses of worship during my 25 years at the Times. I think you can have profound spiritual experiences in many settings, including through music and nature. The most profound spiritual experience in my life was when I held my first child in my arms for the first time.

BJP: How did the exhibition come about? Why has it taken so long to see your work exhibited?

James Estrin: While I haven’t exhibited my work for over 20 years I have had the great fortune to be published in The New York Times on an almost daily basis and have millions of people see it. So it’s not like I have been hiding. I have known Bob Gilson, the curator at the 92nd Street Y for a long time. He asked me to exhibit about eight years ago but I was never able to find the time. He asked me again recently and I figured – why not? I write about other photographers who put their work out there in exhibits. It seems only fair to put myself in a similar position. Plus it was challenging to go through my work and figure out what an exhibit would be. I didn’t want to do a greatest hits album.

BJP: Over the years, with Lens, you’ve put the spotlight on hundreds of photographers. Now the spotlight is on your own work. How does it feel? How do you approach this situation? Do you think it will have an impact on how you talk about other people’s work?

James Estrin: I think most photographers and other artists have some apprehension when they put their work out in public. But I’ve been a daily newspaper photographer my whole adult life and my photos have been made and seen in that context. Before the web, they would appear in the paper and for the most part would be pretty much forgotten after a day or two. I feel very comfortable doing my work as a Times’ photographer and having it seen in print or on the web. But when I put my photos on a wall they seem to be saying “take me seriously”. Being a photographer helps me to write about photographers and I imagine that putting my photos on a wall might help me feel the discomfort and vulnerability most photographers feel when they put their work in galleries, museums or books.

Observance: Photography by James Estrin is on show from 07 January to 03 March at the Milton J. Weill Art Gallery, 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, New York. The opening reception takes place on 07 January from 5 to 7pm. For more details, visit www.92y.org.