Review by Nicholas Forrest
“Like sentries, doormen have patrolled New York’s apartment buildings for some 150 years. They are arguably the most iconic and the most underrated powerful personalities in New York City real estate, often playing a role that's midway between building security and therapist. Guarding the entrance to buildings and serving as the unofficial social anthropologists of New York’s most privileged, the doormen are filled with anecdotes of human behaviour: they know what their tenants eat, whether they drink too much and if they have kinky sex. But while the doormen have access to intensely personal information about their residents’ lives and are the gatekeepers of their secrets, the inhabitants tend to know little about the personal lives of their doormen.” Peter Bearman, Doormen author.
At some time during your travels you’re bound to have encountered a porter or concierge at a hotel or shopping mall, but in reality these are totally different positions to the role of the residential doorman, at least when it comes to NYC, a city in which exists a unique urban subculture unlike any other – a largely misunderstood subculture driven by myth, legend, and tradition. Protector, courier, therapist, announcer, real estate broker, porter, valet, maid, concierge, horticulturist, interior decorator, and even playboy – these are but a few of the roles that NYC’s doormen might take on during a shift. But how much do you really know about doormen? And does it really matter?
The perceived prestige of the uniform, the responsibility afforded to the doorman, the secrecy, and the association with the rich and famous, has aided the generation and dissemination of the idea that the doorman position is one of luxury, status, privilege, and comfort. But in reality, it is much more complex, being largely defined by a plethora of dichotomies spanning presence and absence, placement and displacement, past and present, while the existence of hierarchies of building location, building tenants, and shift times complicates the subculture even further, as does the pertinent issue of the social distance between doorman and tenant. Perhaps the complex reality of a doorman is best expressed in the classic Seinfeld episode titled “The Doorman,” when Jerry Seinfeld ends up standing in for the doorman in a building that Elaine is House Sitting.
Although there is a perception of the doorman position being one of prestige, luxury, and status, it is really a façade and in a sense wrongly applied to the role. These characteristics really belong to the building and its tenants who perceive that the presence of a doorman affords them and the building they live in a certain status and prestige, while at the same time even adding value to their property. The position of the doorman is really a working-class position where even the myth of the status of the uniform is wrongly assumed to be a sign of a higher class job. Considering the associations of trust, power, and authority that people make when they see a policeman or a fireman in uniform, it’s not surprising that the doormen in their uniforms trigger the same associations.
Necessity is known to be the mother of invention, and in a way, it was necessity that gave birth to “At Your Door.” When Alina needed to either find an apartment in Manhattan without paying the typical real estate agent brokers fee, or choose to live in a less prestigious suburb of New York City, she had the idea of asking the city’s doormen if they knew of any apartments in their building that were being vacated. Little did she know that this act of necessity would lead her on an emotional journey that would enable her to gain unparalleled access into the incredible lives of NYC’s famed doormen.
The origins of the project were also driven by yet another necessity – the necessity for Alina to replenish the lifeblood of her creative spirit, which in her case is recognizing, capturing, and presenting the stories of those in society who are most in need of having their stories told. “At Your Door” ended up being a particularly poignant project for Alina, specifically because she found that her subjects not only shared her Eastern European heritage, but could also relate to her own history of migration and the trauma of trading a life of status and affluence for safety and freedom.
Alina’s migrant history and experiences of the polarity of poverty and affluence enabled her to connect with her subjects on a particularly deep level. “In my work I explore the idea of Invisible Scars of Displacement because I never felt entitled to talk to anyone about the impact migrating from Russia as a teenager had on me – there are no visible scars, no wounds of war in my experiences, and yet the emotional trauma of immigration with its sense of displacement is inevitably there,” she says. “I found an internal way of coping with these ‘invisible scars of displacement’ through art – photography in particular.”
“At Your Door” features 13 doormen, each of whom has been photographed in traditional doorman uniform and wearing a 19th century cravat, which is no longer part of their uniform, and then in again in “civilian” clothes of their choice. It’s quite amazing just how much the shift from wearing a uniform to civilian clothes changes the relationship between the subject and the viewer. “The key image will show each doorman as a figure of authority presiding over the duties of the building, shot in old regalia outfits to give them a sense of duty and monumentality,” Alina explains. “The second image of each doorman, shot in his civilian clothes, reveals the real person behind the uniform, showing his true personal essence.”
According to Alina, she captured each doorman wearing the cravat to give the profession a sense of prestige by presenting them as gatekeepers of secrets from the past. The cravat also raises questions of the relevance and need of the position in contemporary society, while at the same time is symbolic of who the men are and their origins. “From my research and conducted interviews I discovered many of the Eastern European immigrants are highly educated.” she says. “The cravat not only honours their past lives but also reveals this largely unknown information.”
Alina’s decision to shoot the series with a Hasselblad medium format camera is evidence of her unwavering pursuit of perfection. “My first experience with photography was with a vintage film 500 CM Hasselblad – my dad’s camera,” says Alina. “I used to get dizzy looking through the viewfinder as everything was upside down. I have a real sentimental spot for this camera and it is for this reason I’ve chosen to shoot AT YOUR DOOR with Hasselblad.”
Very few artists have persuaded NYC’s doormen to let them into their lives, which is testament to Alina’s credibility, skill, and dedication to her craft. Becoming a successful artist, especially one whose primary subject is people, not only requires great technical prowess, but also a certain ability to sympathize and empathize with the subjects. The fact that each of the doormen broke down in tears at some point during their sittings is testament to the depth of the connection that Alina made with the doormen. Look closely and you’ll see tears in the eyes of a few of the portraits.
Composing documentary photograph is especially tricky, considering the limited number of ways that the format can be manipulated and adjusted. Alina’s technical skill and understanding of her medium is evident in “At Your Door.” In the main set of images with the doormen dressed in uniform, Alina photographs the subjects from below, as she usually does when photographing people of power and politics, endowing them with authority, status, and stature. The opposite is the case with the portraits of the doormen in their civilian clothes, where Alina creates an atmosphere of vulnerability and informality by photographing each of the men, thereby framing them in a more sympathetic context.
There is a tension between the perceived status, power, and prestige of the Doorman position, the frequently tragic and complicated histories of the men behind the uniforms, and the humble, everyday reality of their everyday lives, that will never be resolved. One of the reasons it will never be resolved is because it is in the best interest of the building owners and their tenants to maintain the myth of status and prestige afforded to the doorman. Perhaps it is this tension that manifests itself as the palpable spirituality or presence that seems to emanate from each of the portraits.
Appearing only at certain times of the day, often only at night during a night shift, and only existing in the lives of the building’s tenants for a short period of time on a particular day, after which they completely disappear only to reappear during their next shift, the doorman is somewhat of a ghostly figure. Alina’s portraits themselves radiate somewhat of a ghostly aura, with the way she has crafted each photo – lighting, position, backdrop, costume – endowing each of the doormen a sort of boundlessness that transcends the constraints of time or space.
Adding to the transcendency of each doorman’s presence, the mirrored inside edges of the spectacular brass frames reflect the images of the doorman, projecting them into a peripheral dimension. Within legend and history there are many references to the mirror being a portal for ghosts to enter the physical world, which could prompt one to ask whether the images of men in the photos are in fact themselves reflections of a physical entity rather than physical entities themselves – what elements of the doorman position are myth and what are reality?
The very best documentary photographers, such as Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Richard Avedon, and Diane Arbus, don’t just capture people, they encapsulate them. Instead of merely photographing her subjects through the lens of a camera, Alina interprets her subjects through a multifaceted prism, transcending the limited spatiality of the photographic image to create a multidimensional biography of each of her subjects. The voices of each of the doormen in each of Alina’s portraits is so clear, lucid, and palpable that you can’t help but think of all the questions you want to ask them in response.
The questions you might think of asking the doormen: where do you come from and what made you decide to come to America? Do you wish that you could continue to live the life of a doorman when you leave your shift? What is the most extraordinary encounter you have had with a tenant? Where do you go when you leave your shift? What would you be if you weren’t a doorman? How did you end up getting your job as a doorman? What is the most bizarre request you have had from a tenant? What is the one thing you wish you could reveal about what you have seen and experienced?
Whatever it is that you take away from the experience of seeing Alina’s “At Your Door” project, you can almost be sure that the images will stay in your mind long after leaving the exhibition. Through the medium of photography, Alina cements and anchors the true importance and significance of the doormen and their stories not only into the minds of her audience but also into the very zeitgeist, and in the process gives her audience a rare insight into the complexities of contemporary society and provides a unique perspective on the intricacies of the human condition.
“At a time of such strong and moving debate about immigration, ultimately AT YOUR DOOR is about an idea we all carry in our hearts - HOME!,” Alina says. “The doormen who work for the Manhattan’s elite have huge life stories with little or no opportunity to tell them. I wanted to tell their stories as a hybrid of documentary and fine art photography. I want to tell a particular story about their lives and highlight the issues I’m always exploring – invisible scars of displacement and the importance of finding humour in everything we do.”
“Doormen may be the most underrated powerful people in New York. Serving as the unofficial social anthropologists of New York’s most privileged – and often most oblivious – doormen are filled with anecdotes of terrible human behaviour. Unable to distract themselves with books or even phones (though occasionally some will sneak them in), doormen who stay up through the night have their eyes on everything and everyone at pretty much all times” The New York Times, Melissa Kravitz, 2016.