Anyone who has wiled away an afternoon pounding the pavements of New York City would have been greeted some of the city’s ubiquitous doormen, who, in their old-fashioned garb and quaintly formal air, are a throwback to a long gone era.
Like many visitors to the city, Russian-Australian photographer Alina Gozin’a was taken back. “I was walking the street of Manhattan, looking for a place to live,” Alina tells me about the project’s origins, “And I kept passing these buildings with these men in these clothes, and I just thought, ‘what on earth is this?’”
But her interest really piqued when she discovered that the majority of the city’s doormen are Eastern European and Russian immigrants. As the child of Russian immigrants herself – she settled in Australia at age 14 after her parents opted to sacrifice their considerable wealth for the relative freedom of the west – she was so intrigued she decided to make these men the subjects of a photographic installation.
The result is At Your Door: The Doormen of New York City, which opened this week in Sydney’s Wentworth Gallery in Martin Place. “As humans, we are obsessed with each other and with finding meaning in things,” Gozin’a explains, “And I wanted to find meaning in their work.”
“The cravats are a metaphor for a few things. First, to show how outdated the profession is, even though it is very entrenched in New York and is not going anywhere."
At Your Door is an installation as well as a photographic exhibition, consisting of 24 images of 12 subjects, each working as a doorman for some of Manhattan’s most elite addresses. The first – much larger image – sees them pictured in full uniform, while the smaller photos in their chosen off-duty attire, are hung on the wall as a contrast.
With the larger images, weighing 52 kilograms a piece, sitting on the floor of the gallery, the effect is deliberately imposing as well as eye catching, “I wanted the men to look regal,” Gozin’a explains.
The goal to make the men look as grand as possible also compelled the one change the artist made to the men’s uniforms; she added a cravat, the frilly necktie popular among the upper classes in the 18th and 19th centuries. “I gave the men the option to wear the cravat or not and they all chose to wear it,” she says.
“The cravats are a metaphor for a few things,” she continues. "First, to show how outdated the profession is, even though it is very entrenched in New York and is not going anywhere. It also a comment on the dignity of doing that job – these men are there to serve us all day long.
“But it’s also a subtle comment on the very different social status of the men back home. These men were almost all lawyers and engineers or architects back home, and now they have to open the door for someone else.”
It’s a familiar immigrant story; university-trained professionals arrive in the west where their qualifications are not recognised and are forced to the menial tasks of jobs the service industry. They are, Gozin’a describes, “The invisible ones with the invisible scars.” They are the cleaners, the taxi drivers, the dish hands. And, in New York, they are the doormen.
It also a comment on the dignity of doing that job – these men are there to serve us all day long.
To Gozin’a, every story of immigration is a story of displacement and every story of displacement is a story of trauma, even if the scars aren’t always visible. “We are all constantly displaced in big and small ways,” she explains. “And it’s hard to talk about. If we haven’t suffered through conflict or war and we don’t have physical scars, we think what do we have to complain about? How can we justify talking about trauma when other immigrants go through so much worse?
“But the trauma is still there and it deserves to be spoken about.”
It is this hidden trauma inherent in their forced transformation that made it so important to her to photograph the men in her trademark cinematic style for magazine shoots featuring famous actors such as Orange Is The New Black’s Yael Stone.
“I like to work in extremes,” Gozin’a reveals. “To look at the voiced and the voiceless. But I always treat them with the same dignity and shoot them the same way. I think that’s why the men feel so regal in the pictures, and you can really see that.”
It’s clear the project holds personal significance for Gozin’a, and it’s not surprising to learn it meant a lot to the doormen too. “‘We all got emotional,” she admits. “I did not expect them to cry. They did not expect to cry. But we all did, and the real stories came through the tears; the photo shoot reminded them of the other lives that could have been lived.”
But, she continues, the men are resigned to their reality. “They know it’s shit that they have to open doors for people. This job is obviously better than some of the alternatives, but it’s not as good as what they had back home. But they cut their losses to give their children a life of freedom and their children are proud of them.”
And, she adds, the transformation is ongoing. “Every single one of these men has put or are now putting their wives through school. One of them, his wife works as a senior nurse while he opens doors. Can you imagine what a challenge this is for their masculine culture?”
I did not expect them to cry. They did not expect to cry. But we all did, and the real stories came through the tears; the photo shoot reminded them of the other lives that could have been lived.
Like all good, there is much more to this exhibition that first meets the eye. Deliberately timed to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Gozin’a has placed the New York doorman culture is at the forefront of her exhibition, but, she says her greatest hope is that, “People will look at these men and ask themselves a question about who they really are. And that they will then seek out and discover the answers for themselves.”
All images: Alina Gozin’a.
At Your Door is open in Sydney’s Wentworth Gallery until December 16, when it will head to Europe, Los Angeles and of course, New York City.