With a pop-up photo studio, this Bed-Stuy artist turned her neighbors into stars

October 2, 2019 Evan Nicole Brown
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When Hidemi Takagi, a visual artist and photographer originally from Japan, moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant six-and-a-half years ago, she felt a warmth she hadn’t experienced elsewhere in her 20 years living in New York City.

“I’ve lived in different parts of Brooklyn and this is the first time I’ve felt like this is a community,” Takagi said. “This is the best neighborhood I’ve ever lived in.”

Takagi wanted to share that sense of unbridled community with others while also reflecting the neighborhood’s transformation. She started documenting her neighbors, welcoming 80 of them, over time, into a front-stoop photo studio.

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Now, Takagi’s solo exhibition “The Bed-Stuy Social ‘Photo’ Club,” opens Thursday, Oct. 3, at Restoration Plaza.

The project started as a quasi-social experiment. In the spring of 2018, Takagi created a pop-up photo studio in front of her building and offered free portraits to members of the community. She started to draw inspiration from Bed-Stuy’s colorful personalities.

Hidemi Takagi. Photo courtesy of Takagi

“A lot of them are characters, to be honest. [The] people who are middle-aged and older than that, they are born and raised in Bed-Stuy and have lived here their entire life. They’ve grown up together and are still friends,” Takagi said

As the photo sessions went on, Takagi said she felt they began to reinforce the sense of connection.

“I started just taking photographs more casually, using my phone, so they started recognizing me as a photographer,” Takagi said. “Then I started making prints and giving them to them and they appreciated it.”

Word traveled fast. Before long, Bed-Stuy locals began lining up down the block for the chance to get in front of Takagi’s lens. The photo studio, which was visible from the street, attracted long-standing residents and people who had recently moved in — across all age groups and backgrounds — which facilitated new connections that may not have happened otherwise.

“They didn’t come there [just] to get a photograph … it’s not the point of getting a free portrait, but at some point it becomes an activity,” Takagi explained.

The social photo club became a collaborative project, with neighbors volunteering to assist with props, styling and the switching of Takagi’s colorful backdrops.

“Zy’ni and Jay Jay,” from “The Bed-Stuy Social ‘Photo’ Club.” Photo by Hidemi Takagi

In a time when gentrification and real estate development continues to threaten the authenticity of long-standing, working-class communities, Takagi’s open-air photo studio illustrates the tenacity of neighborhoods built on genuine connections.

While the photography project exists in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, it shows that an alternate reality — one outside of the sticky power dynamics associated with new developments and homeowners — can exist when the space is created for it to.

“I think this gave them an opportunity to talk and meet each other which is good,” Takagi says. “I didn’t ask anybody to do anything, but its so nice that people get together with no payment involved.”

Grants from arts organizations like Culture Push and Brooklyn Arts Council helped fund the purchase of props, color backdrops and prints.

BRIC Arts Media invited Takagi to bring her pop-up studio to their space and replicate her entire process last year. According to Takagi, subjects were similarly eager to model for her at BRIC as they were at her front stoop.

“This is about photography … [but] it’s very fascinating to see how they perform,” she said.

Even though Restoration Plaza isn’t a formal art gallery, Takagi was determined to show her work here

“The project is about Bed-Stuy, so it had to be here,” she said.

The stoop setup. Photo courtesy of Hidemi Takagi

Only a select number of images, featuring 42 people from Takagi’s project, are featured in the show due to limited space. But the range of subjects she photographed are represented; ensuring that men and women were included in equal number, as well as age and family diversity, was paramount.

“Of course people living here appreciate the fact that I’m showing their faces, and [that] they can represent this neighborhood,” Takagi said. “[Some of] these people have never had this type of opportunity before … they’ve never seen themselves or their family like this before.”

The photographer said it was surprisingly easy to photograph non-models. As a family portrait photographer, she’s used to working with strangers and new subjects.

“I hope more people come [to the show] so they feel like a star,” she said. “I want them to remember the feeling that they’re very special, because they are.”

“The Bed-Stuy Social ‘Photo’ Club” opens Oct. 3 in the lobby of Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza, 1368 Fulton St. An opening reception will be held from 6-8:30 p.m. The exhibit will be open to the public seven days a week.

Evan Nicole Brown is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, covering the arts, culture and design. Her work can be found in Atlas Obscura, Bushwick Daily, Bustle, Fast Company, and Gothamist, among other places. You can follow her work on Twitter

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