In recent years, the Penn Quarter has become the epicenter of Washington, D.C., a thriving neighborhood where convention-goers, food lovers, museum and theater patrons, and sports fans mingle by day and night. To tourists and locals alike, the intersection of 7th and H Streets, NW is a flashy, vital place—but that wasn’t always the case. Photographer Fred Zafran vividly remembers the years of blight, and these days he senses forces that are more subtle than nightlife.
“Something about this neighborhood kept bringing me back, to wander the streets with camera in hand, to explore, to understand, and with the intent to document what I saw,” Zafran explains. “Vibrant and bristling with energy on the surface, this D.C. neighborhood could be considered a model of urban renewal—but I found the spirit of the place to be elusive, somewhat disquieting, and vaguely foreboding.”
Over the course of a year, Zafran returned frequently to the neighborhood surrounding 7th and H. Within sight of the Chinatown arch, past rows of new restaurants, in the shadows of churches and shops, he began to discern what most of us are moving too quickly to see.
“I wandered the streets and alleyways without plan or preconception—observing, listening, and remaining open to the unforeseen,” he says. “As I did, images slowly emerged, a revelation of what was below the surface. It was the hidden refrain of a neighborhood pulsating and trembling at the intersection of three distinct D.C. subcultures: a popular entertainment quarter, a Chinatown fading in decline, and a shadow world of the nearly forgotten, those struggling and living too close to the street.”
From February 18 through March 30, 2014, you can see what Zafran uncovered in “7th and Streets, NW: The Hidden Refrain of Inner City DC,” a solo exhibition at the Torpedo Factory’s Multiple Exposures Gallery. Zafran himself is quick to point out that these images don’t simply document or comment on life in the neighborhood; instead, he found that he’d captured something far more elusive.
“No photograph is the same as the reality it represents,” he says. “More as a symbolic representation, this work is an effort to communicate the perceived emotional tone and tenor, the narrative and refrain—the faint and intangible presence of place.”
See “7th and H Streets NW: The Hidden Refrain of Inner City DC” at the Torpedo Factory at Multiple Exposures Gallery, studio 312, from February 18 through March 30, 2014. Meet the artist as the exhibition opening and reception on Sunday, March 2, 2014, from 2 to 4 p.m., and explore more of his work at fredzafranphotography.com.