East Baltimore Documentary Photography Project

The East Baltimore Documentary Photography Project took place from the years 1976 to 1980. Photographers Linda Rich, Elinor Cahn, and Joan Netherwood documented the neighborhoods of East Baltimore through means of photography, audio interviews, and transcriptions. These communities were mostly represented by Canton, Butchers Hill, Fells Point, Highlandtown, and Patterson Park, which were comprised of European immigrants primarily of Polish, Ukrainian, Italian, and Greek descent.

The project was inspired by a social documentary photography class taught by Professor Linda Rich at Maryland Institute College of Arts (MICA) in 1976. The project proposal aimed to “create a visual, historical record of the evolution and revitalization of East Baltimore in the second half of the 1970s, and to document the strength and pride of the people of its neighborhoods, both through its past and its present.” [1]

There were many specific interests that Rich, Cahn, and Netherwood had when carrying out the project. One interest of theirs was the recent changes in the community of East Baltimore. Specifically, the photographers focused on “revitalization”, which they defined as the action of young families moving into deteriorating neighborhoods to buy, restore, and inhabit properties, as well as the rejuvenation of small businesses as a way of maintaining the economic strength in the community. [1]

Another major interest for the photographers was the changes from past to present, specifically as it pertains to immigrants. The photographers were interested in what East Baltimore meant to a variety of different people, from first generation to fourth generation immigrants as well as those born and raised in East Baltimore that had no strong ethnic ties.

In addition to changes in the community, the photographers highlighted how the industrial peninsula related to the lives of residents from various neighborhoods. The findings of these documentations show impacts of the socialization processes among these neighborhoods, such as the importance of the front stoops, festivals, churches, celebrations, the nature of family and political structure, and education within the community. Most importantly, the project focused on the everyday lives of the people of East Baltimore and emphasis was put on involving the residents in the project as much as possible.

While the photographers spent a large amount of time taking photos, creating transcripts and recording audio interviews, a large portion of time was also taken to present their work to the community. Specifically, the photographs were displayed throughout the neighborhoods, and receptions around the work were held in order to foster dialogue between residents about the future of East Baltimore. A broader effort was made to create a book rich in artistic substance that would serve as a lasting and meaningful catalogue and a permanent accessible record to the public, specifically to East Baltimore residents. Additionally, the photographs were intended to be showcased on a national level in order to exhibit the East Baltimore community to the broader United States in hopes of revitalization.

With a collection of over 10,000 photographs, the East Baltimore Documentary Photography Project is rich in cultural content from the late 1970s. With great variability and quantity of material in the collection, the lives of East Baltimoreans are captured with a focus on themes such as immigrant history, changes in the community, and a prevailing theme of “the promise of the future”. In many ways, the East Baltimore Documentary Photography Project offers a powerful narrative lens into the history of East Baltimore, whose themes extend to broader America in the 1970’s. As Linda Rich comments in her original project proposal, East Baltimore is “a microcosm of the American experience… The uniqueness of East Baltimore lies in the fact that the neighborhood residents have organized themselves to being constructively shaping their own future.” [1]

[1] box 1, folder 1, “Project Proposal”