Brenda Ann Kenneally’s masterful new photo book, “Upstate Girls: Unraveling Collar City,” is a deep study of a group of girls from two or three extended families in Troy, N.Y. Most of them live in the same neighborhood, even on the same block. “Upstate Girls” begins in 2004, when Kenneally is drawn to the story of 14-year-old Kayla, who is pregnant. Kayla’s partner is Sabrina, also 14. The baby daddy is Sabrina’s cousin Joshua, and the pregnancy is a result of a casual encounter between Kayla and Joshua while Kayla and Sabrina were on the outs. But with the baby almost due and Joshua in prison, Kayla and Sabrina are back together, determined to be co-parents.
Kenneally obtains permission to begin documenting their lives, and does so over the course of nine years, from 2004 to 2013. In the book, we meet parents, siblings, children, lovers, friends who move in because they have nowhere else to go. We meet Deb, Kayla’s mother, and Wilhelmina, Deb’s mother. We meet Big Jessie and Dana, sisters who live next door (Big Jessie is so called because Kayla has a younger brother called Little Jesse). The cast of characters sprawls out to more than two dozen, the connections ramifying, with deaths and births and marriages and breakups. Year follows year in these difficult lives. It is an immersive project, and the book, at more than 400 pages, can barely contain the material.
There are boys in “Upstate Girls,” in addition to the girls. Infant boys who turn out to have serious social and developmental problems and are institutionalized well before puberty. Growing boys who come in and out of juvenile detention, whose hours are consumed with snacking and video games and listlessness. And there are men who never stopped being boys, who are peripheral to their families for reasons of drink or drugs, temperament or incarceration. The boys misbehave at all ages, but there’s no suggestion by Kenneally that there is some straightforward explanation for their misbehavior. Like the girls, they seem more helpless than malicious, largely unable to fight back against their overwhelming circumstances.
“Upstate Girls” is in the tradition of socially concerned photography, and it evokes ground-level studies of American poverty like “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” James Agee and Walker Evans’s project on three sharecropping families in 1930s Alabama, or Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the Great Depression in the American West. The vertiginous odds that control these lives, in Kenneally’s telling, have everything to do with the specific history of place. In this sense, “Upstate Girls” might be compared to LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “The Notion of Family” (2014), which is about the effect of industrial pollution on her family in their hometown, Braddock, Pa.
Kenneally’s own biography primed her to identify with her subjects. “I had become a fixture among the girls on Sixth Avenue,” she writes. “I was there on the afternoons when one by one they walked into Kayla’s room and flung their bodies in a pile across her bed like rag dolls putting themselves away.” Born in Albany, she spent much of her childhood in nearby Troy. Her family had many of the same complications that assail the families in “Upstate Girls,” including mental illness and alcoholism. Kenneally was pregnant at 14 and got an abortion at her mother’s bidding. Now approaching 60, she is a successful artist, a winner of two World Press Photo awards and a Guggenheim fellowship. But Kenneally still sees herself in these girls. “My love for the girls was deepened by the gratitude I felt to them for returning the bad-girl part of me I’d had to abandon,” she writes. Jettisoning all professional detachment, she joins them on joy rides and shoplifting sprees, losing herself in “the whirlwind of activity that didn’t seem attached to a bit of progress.”
Kenneally’s photographs are scrupulously unbeautiful. But the innate tenderness of young people is everywhere in the book, visible because she chooses to see it. Kenneally adopts an aesthetic reminiscent of a do-it-yourself family album. Images are laid out across the book’s binding, and there are captions both handwritten and typed. Kenneally’s own photographs are supplemented both by childhood snapshots of the girls and boys and by archival photos and ephemera from the local historical society. “Upstate Girls” contains a handful of strikingly composed photographs, but for the most part, Kenneally seems uninterested in “good” photography. The images convey the sprawl and messiness of overpopulated interiors or gritty streetscapes. There’s stuff everywhere, page after page, in the paradoxical plenitude of poverty: cheap clothing, packaged food, soda bottles, bedding, posters, wires, balloons, bits of trash on the ground, gaudily painted walls, lots of pink here and there, human limbs and faces and bellies (I can’t recall ever seeing a book with this many pregnant bellies). There are babies and parents and lovers and dogs, and stuffed toys that remind us that these young women are still girls. Often shooting with a wide lens, neither prettying things up nor making them intentionally gross, Kenneally respects her material. It’s squalid, but it’s also how life sometimes is.
Troy is, in one sense, an ordinary midsize Rust Belt city whose economy took a beating from the collapse of manufacturing. But Kenneally also argues, convincingly, that Troy is a prototypical American city. It was in Troy that horseshoes were first made by machines, and the city supplied almost all the horseshoes used by the Union Army in the Civil War. It was the founding place of the modern detachable collar, an industry that would end up making it an economic powerhouse in the early 20th century (hence “Collar City”). And it was the home of Sam Wilson, the meatpacker whose barrels of meat during the War of 1812 were stamped “U.S.” — for the United States, which, conflated with Wilson’s nickname Uncle Sam, made him a symbol of American ingenuity and patriotism.
Ingenuity and patriotism are not what come to mind in any consideration of the appalling income inequality, poor social services, deadly drug epidemics and overincarceration that make up the contemporary reality of many places like Troy. These are pictures of enmity. How can a society as wealthy as the United States so despise and so thoroughly batter its own? This darker historical story is skillfully woven into “Upstate Girls.” When Kenneally tells us about Kayla’s brother Robert’s first placement in a juvenile facility, at Vanderheyden Hall, she folds it into an account of how Vanderheyden Hall evolved out of the Troy Orphan Asylum, and how such institutions came into being. The decline of the textile industry is vividly illustrated by the fact that Kayla’s mother, Deb; her grandmother Wilhelmina; and her great-grandmother all worked as sewing-machine operators at Standard Manufacturing Co. Inc. in North Troy, until Deb finally moved on to insecure jobs in retail and housekeeping.
The sociological dimension of the project is impressively detailed, but I do wish Kenneally would have considered questions of race and sexuality more directly. Several of the girls are lesbian or bisexual, but this is barely addressed, except in relation to one father’s intolerant Christianity. And though many of the girls (most of them white) are involved with mixed-race or black men, that also isn’t discussed at all. The much higher rate of black childhood poverty in Troy, compared with the already high rate for white children, ought to have merited a mention. These omissions feel artificially apolitical.
In the second half of the book, the focus turns to Tony, the boy born to Kayla at the beginning of the project. Tony’s behavioral problems are severe. He has terrifying tantrums, several of which Kenneally photographs. Before the age of 7, he is found to have A.D.H.D., insomnia, bipolar disorder, separation anxiety and PTSD. Several members of the family had been given similar diagnoses when they were children, including his mother. Many of Kenneally’s subjects find the world hostile and threatening. They rarely like being away from home or their loved ones. The diagnosis “social phobic” recurs. Home is not easy, but there is something truly frightening about strangers: This is just one of the many ways, as Kenneally shows, that extreme poverty can limit human potential.
Is there any hope? Kenneally ends the book, against all odds, on an upbeat note. She cannot console us about what we have seen, and she can’t even persuade us that change is coming. But she subtly sides with hope. One girl returns to an early love and marries him. Another, in a family with no college graduates, writes an impressively self-possessed college-application essay. The final photo in “Upstate Girls” is of Tony at 13, almost the age Kayla was when she had him. He lies on his back on a blue background, a few yellow leaves around him, a beautiful boy. His tumultuous life, for a moment, is stilled. His face looks peaceful. And in the acknowledgments of the book, without supplying an explanation, Kenneally thanks him as her son.
Teju Cole is a novelist, a photographer and the magazine’s photography critic. He teaches at Harvard.
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