Eighteen years ago, when photographer E. Jan Kounitz suggested to his wife that they consider a move to Jersey City she wouldn’t hear of it, so wedded was she to their rustic artistic lifestyle in Tribeca.
But a long and costly legal battle with their New York landlord and a 1998 New Years Eve party in the Jersey City Heights would prove to be the nudge she needed to finally make the two-mile trek west to what has been the couple’s home since 1999.
The move would also fuel one of the most prolific periods for Kounitz and his work as a photographer.
“Jersey City is like New York City, but a lot friendlier,” he said. “Here, when you say hello to someone, they expect a response, whereas in New York people just look at you like there’s something wrong with you. The people here are a lot more approachable.”
‘This is clearly his little way of expressing some creativity in his life.’ – E. Jan Kounitz
“When I first began this series I took a lot of candid shots, where the people didn’t necessarily know I was there or didn’t know I was taking their picture,” he said. “But that has changed over time. And you’ll now see that in most of the more recent photos my subjects are clearly aware that I’m there. You miss the spontaneous moment. But this puts the subjects on an equal playing field with the photographer. They are watching me as I’m looking at them.”
Hidden in Plain Sight, he said, exposes artistic flourishes that he finds throughout the Heights that are probably overlooked in the hustle of daily life.
“There’s this house and the owner sets up in the window these moving dolls. And every so often, the dolls change,” Kounitz noted. “The dolls on display aren’t always the same. I don’t know that this guy’s an artist. But this is clearly his little way of expressing some creativity in his life. What’s interesting is, if you never walk down this bock you wouldn’t know this window display is there.”
Another photo in the series is of a small mural of flowers accompanied by the quote, “Oblivious to time, youth rushes into the future, having no thoughts of yesterday.” A third image features an unusual collection of paintings, baseball caps, and a mask which some resident tried to shed at a Heights flea market. Still another image is of piñatas that decorate Supremo, the local supermarket on Palisade Avenue.
Community focused art
While downtown has long been associated with the local arts community, Kounitz believes that the Heights has its own rich artistic heritage.
“The Heights was the home of one of the first film studios, even before Thomas Edison’s Black Maria studio, and this community has been home to costume designers, lighting technicians, stage directors, and many people who have worked in film and theater in New York. There is legacy here that I think is overlooked. But the people of this community really appreciate art and have a real respect for it.”
As proof, Kounitz describes several community murals that exist in the community that have yet to be marred by graffiti, even in the midst of what the Jersey City Police Department calls a graffiti epidemic going on right now.
“The people in this community, including the kids, see these murals as art and it has meaning to them, so they don’t touch it. They leave it be,” Kounitz noted.
Among the artistic flourishes that have remained untouched by graffiti is the Kounitz sunflower that decorates an electrical box in the Heights. The photographer was among four artists selected by the Central Avenue Special Improvement District to decorate a handful of functional but unattractive electrical boxes in the neighborhood. For his box, Kounitz took a photo of a sunflower growing in a neighbor’s backyard. The image was transferred to a large piece of vinyl that was then draped and affixed to the box.
Incredibly, two years after it was completed, the sunflower remains free of spray painted squiggles or tags.
“I’ve always said, if you give people, especially kids, their own creative outlet, give them something to do, they won’t resort to things like graffiti,” said Kounitz. “That is, or can be, the ultimate power of what we might call community-focused art.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.