This month Orlando City Hall's Terrace Gallery will feature the work of Donovan Brooks, a native of the Bronx who has lived in Orlando for the past 13 years. In his photographs we are introduced to a dystopian Orlando, defiantly at odds with its Disney-saturated reputation.
Over the past five years Brooks has spent several days a week roaming the city's four quadrants, searching for the dark side of the American dream. Abandoned houses, highway underpasses and homeless people are the focus of his camera. He draws our attention to the part of the city that lives in the shadow of the fancy malls and restaurants, the gritty sides of neighborhoods left behind. It's to the credit of City Hall that they welcome this artist, whose vision of the city explores the work yet to be done.
The people and places he photographs are casualties of economic hardship. A single-family house on Orange Blossom Trail looms over the viewer, derelict, siding stripped off, surrounded with barbed wire. The signs in the hands of the homeless make evident their desperation: "Homeless! The car won," states a victim of an auto accident. In "Sleep Is a Cousin of Death," a man lies face-down in the street. Many homeless people use downtown Orlando as home base; what services there are for them are here, as well as open public spaces, though those are increasingly regulated against them. Brooks' black-and-white portraits are intimate and respectful, forcing us to move beyond the stigma and confront the individual lives that are easily disregarded or invisible. The young artist accomplishes a difficult task, for which we should be thankful.
Brooks, currently pursuing a degree in digital media at Seminole State College, has focused on fashion photography, but is now passionate about documenting the life of people and their city. He follows a long lineage of street photographers who bear witness to the spectrum of the human condition. Similar to Robert Frank's The Americans, Brooks' photos force us to confront troubling subjects. Unlike Douglas Nesbitt, another local artist and erstwhile Bronx resident who has specialized in glossy, beautiful images of Orlando for many years, Brooks focuses on the unbeautiful and disfranchised. At the same time he flatters Orlando by representing its burgeoning artists community, which works to add to the city's uniqueness and character.