After working in banking for 27 years, just before the economic collapse in 2008, Ira Wagner decided to try something new. He started taking classes at the International Center of Photography in New York and was encouraged by one of his professors to go for an MFA, which he finished in 2013
For two years he worked on what would become his thesis project, a study of the Bronx borough of New York City, which he documented with an 8-by-10 view camera. Wagner’s mother’s family is from the Bronx and he grew up in Yonkers, just north of the Bronx, until he was 15. Working on the series gave him the chance to revisit a bit of his past as well as to get an idea of what was happening to the area.*
“For many people, and this is by no means universal, the idea of the Bronx is kind of frozen in the 1970s and ’80s,” Wagner said. “A dangerous, burned down, hopeless place. I found it’s not like that at all … it’s basically a place where people are trying to make their lives better and raise a family and have what everyone else wants.”
He decided to work with the large-format camera after shooting a series about New York’s apartment lobbies with a digital camera; he wanted to try to get a lot more detail in his work and to also be able to print it at a larger size.
“In a way it was also interesting to people on the street,” he said. “They were curious as to what it was about and what I was doing; it became a tool to talk to people and didn’t close me off, opened conversations and made them see I was interested in the landscapes where they lived.”
A lot of the work for the series, titled “Superior Apartments” after the ubiquitous sign that was fixed to many of the buildings he photographed, takes a historical approach to the Bronx, from the ways in which public housing was built to further back when the Dutch were in New York.
“I was trying to think historically: What was this place at one time and how did it all evolve and change?”
Many of the images have a nostalgic quality, taken of architecture and signage from decades past. Through his research, Wagner said he has encountered many people who have some kind of connection to the Bronx and many of them have set up groups on Facebook in order to talk about shared experiences.
“The Bronx is one of the last vestiges of pre-gentrified New York in a way and that may change, it’s like the last frontier in a way. Maybe it’s better off that it doesn’t; it’s still reasonable and convenient and maybe it’s good to keep it that way.”
“Superior Apartments” is on view at the Gallery at Hillside Square in Montclair, New Jersey, through Sept. 4.
Correction, July 16, 2015: This post originally misstated that Yonkers borders Manhattan and the Bronx. It borders the northern end of the Bronx and doesn’t border Manhattan.