In square miles, Chelsea is the smallest city in Massachusetts. In social complexity, history, and challenges, it’s anything but small. Certainly, it feels a whole lot larger in two current photography shows.
Neither exhibition is actually in Chelsea. “Arnie Jarmak: Photographing Chelsea in Transition, 1977-89″ runs at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art through Dec. 4. Darlene DeVita’s “People of Chelsea Project” runs at the Multicultural Art Center in Cambridge, through Sept. 23.
The McMullen show, which was curated by BC’s Ash Anderson and Diana Larsen, has those dates in the subtitle because that’s when Jarmek was staff photographer at the city’s daily newspaper, The Chelsea Record. The show includes a half-dozen vintage copies of the paper.
There are 80 or so Jarmak photographs on display. Fifteen of them have accompanying audio interviews, which viewers can listen to on a smartphone. It’s an example of how thoroughly Anderson and Larsen have done their work. There are also two of Jarmak’s cameras, a Nikon and a large-format Deardorff, the latter a mighty thing which greets the viewer at the beginning of the show.
Chelsea may not be large, but the thought of Jarmak lugging around the Deardorff on assignment is daunting. Clearly, though, he wasn’t daunted. The Boston Public Library is in the process of digitizing 20,000 of his negatives; and the BC show makes plain how wide-ranging his work was in terms of subject. Various sections are devoted to politics, religion, storefronts, fires (which bedeviled the city), portraits, and photographs of children.
Jarmak, now 72 and mostly living in Maine, has spoken of his admiration for Walker Evans. The children’s photographs and his deep-seated appreciation of urban life generally show an affinity with Helen Levitt.
Jarmak’s work is photojournalism, but as Anderson and Larsen recognize it’s much more than that. It touches on history, sociology, economics, politics, and, for lack of a better word, personality — both his (humane, energetic, vigorously curious) and that of his subjects. There’s a wall with nine portraits, each person shot close up, the faces endlessly interesting. (The DeVita show consists solely of portraits, but save that for a little later.)
No less important is another element, artistry. Consider two examples.
“First Communion” is ostensibly about the nine girls visible in it. What it’s really about is the way their heads emerge from a sea of white (the veils and dresses), in a way that’s both magical and a little bit creepy.
“Last House on Third Street” shows the one building that remains on a piece of land designated for redevelopment. So, yes, the image is journalistic. It’s illustrative. It provides information. But the fantastical juxtaposition of structure with openness is worthy of the late Jerry Uelsmann. The presence of verticals (courtesy of the triple-decker, the bare trees beside it, and a utility pole) creates a striking contrast within the image’s fundamental horizontality. And there’s Jarmak’s shadow — another vertical element — at the bottom center, looking like an arrow pointed at the house.
We like to speak of America as a nation of immigrants, or we used to. Chelsea is very much a city of immigrants and remains so: from Irish and French Canadians in the 19th century to Eastern European Jews at the turn of the century (the city once had 18 synagogues) to Central Americans today.
Immigration being a constant in Chelsea for so long, it looms large in both the Jarmak show and DeVita’s. The two photographers are acquainted. “We joke that I’m the new Arnie, 40 yrs later,” DeVita wrote in a recent e-mail. “Our work is much different but the love for our city is the same!”
That love very much comes through in “People of Chelsea Project.” So does the exclamation mark. DeVita took the photographs, all black and white, between 2016 and 2022, with most of them coming after 2020. They’re 17 inches square. Thin white mattes and thin black frames ensure that the emphasis is on the images — or, rather, the people in them.
Some of the portraits are solo, some duo, some trio, a few of even larger groups. All come with extensive captions, drawn from interviews with the subjects. Verbally, the captions do explicitly what Jarmak’s images do implicitly and visually: blending social history with personal and community history. DeVita wants us to know that the people she photographs are participants, even partners, in what she’s doing. The fact that all the subjects are aware of the camera, and nearly all are looking at it, emphasizes that idea of collaboration.
DeVita poses most of her sitters in front of a scrim, with a distinctive marbled design. Even when they’re not in front of it, it’s usually visible. This provides a touch of visual continuity within so much human variety. We meet (that’s the right verb) young, old, longtime residents and recent immigrants, people of different races, students, businesspeople, retirees, parents and children, couples.
Two of the pictures have the city’s two chief landmarks in them. In one, the Tobin Bridge is visible in the background. Another includes a sign for the Soldiers’ Home. Otherwise, the portraits could be pretty much anywhere. That’s what’s best about them, how they combine particularity of place, thanks to the captions, with universality of feeling, thanks to the faces. Not least among those feelings is a sense of belonging. There’s nothing small about that.
On Sept. 14, the Multicultural Arts Center will host a reception and panel discussion in conjunction with the show. Participants include DeVita and one of her subjects, Emily Menjivar.
ARNIE JARMAK: Photographing Chelsea in Transition, 1977-89
At McMullen Museum of Art, 2102 Commonwealth Ave., through Dec. 4. 617-552-8587, www.bc.edu/sites/artmuseum
PEOPLE OF CHELSEA PROJECT: Photographs by Darlene DeVita
At Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second St., Cambridge, through Sept. 23. 617- 577-1400, www.multiculturalartscenter.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.