Sunday, July 14, 2024

A detail from “Misty” (2021) by Kristen Joy Emack from her exhibit “Book of Saints.”

Though the “Book of Saints” photography exhibit is in Boston, it couldn’t be more about Cambridge. The show by Cambridge photographer Kristen Joy Emack, which debuted Jan. 5 and runs through Feb. 10, invites viewers to contemplate the impact of innovation-driven gentrification on our historic city.

“I thought that I was a person who always understood gentrification, and I was surprised to discover that I didn’t realize it was happening in my own neighborhood around me until it was too late,” Emack said in an interview at her Wellington-Harrington home Jan. 6.

Emack lives in housing subsidized through the federal Section 8 program. This is the same place where she raised her son Niko and daughter Apple, and has dedicating years to working on the evolving series of photos, what she considers a project in only its earliest phases.

It is a response to the changing demographics of city neighborhoods including her own –  a love letter and a warning sign.

Kristen Emack at her “Book of Saints”s show opening at Boston’s Gallery Kayafas. (Photo: Abigail Habtehans)

“Just standing outside of my apartment and looking down the street I could see other parts of the city have just been enveloped into tall buildings,” she said, gesturing toward the view. “Developers are buying up property who don’t even live in the state, and then they’re making lots of money by upping rent. So all of this happening around me makes me very concerned for lower-income families and all of the hidden inequities that we all have to struggle with and think about.”

American Community Survey data shows median family income in Cambridge stood at $147,492 in 2022, a 47 percent increase from 1999 yet overshadowed by the city’s cost of living, which exceeds the national average by 73 percent. Cambridge residents of Black, Hispanic or Latinx origin face double the likelihood of living below the poverty line.

The 2020 census data, analyzed in a Cambridge Community Foundation report, provides evidence that Black and low-income families are leaving Cambridge. Photographs by Emack are featured in the report. “I want to create a visual archive that [speaks] to Cambridge 15, 20, 100 years from now, when people are looking back at Cambridge and thinking about this place,” Emack said. “I want there to be evidence of who was here and who could not stay, because Cambridge is no longer sustainable for families.”

Emack’s previous series of photos, “Cousins,” was also more than a decade in the making. That earlier collection features images of Emack’s family, including her daughter and nieces.

“Book of Saints” is a continuation, Emack said.

“A saint in its most simple form, it’s just a regular person who’s out in the world trying to do good. They’re not heroic. They’re just very committed to being a good person and to doing good things in the world, and because of that, they are upheld into a sainthood,” Emack said. “I loved the idea of thinking about the people in the city who are good people, trying to do good things in simple ways, and are really the folks that are going to be left out of the riches of the city as it continues to explode in this gentrification phase.”

Emack spotlights images of two girls in front of an apartment. Clara stands beside a tree; playing casually with the branches is Rafa, a Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school student who died over the summer of liver cancer. Her gaze is directly into the camera. Her presence introduces a sense of immediacy and connection between the subject and the viewer.

The gallery also debuted Emack’s first short video, also of images of Cambridge.

“There’s an image of a little girl named Misty that I took about two years ago. Misty is looking at me through the window of an empty local restaurant,” she said. “You can see the signage, and the buildings of Cambridge, and some of the architecture of the street reflected in the storefront window.”

The significance is that the restaurant “was closed because it was purchased,” Emack said, “and about to become a fancy, bougie restaurant.”

  • “Book of Saints” is up through Feb. 10 at Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Ave. No. 37, Boston. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays.