Bloomington’s housing projects are less than two miles away from Indiana University, where Jeffrey Wolin has been teaching photography since 1980. Still, that side of town seemed worlds apart from IU until a grisly murder connected them in September 1986.
The victim was Ellen Marks, who had until recently been enrolled as a graduate student in the English department, and had been living in a lean-to made of packing crates on a vacant lot near Crestmont Public Housing, commonly known as Pigeon Hill.
Town Meets Gown
The murderer was quickly identified, but the mystery of Marks’ self-imposed exile from the ivory tower lingered on. An Associated Press story from 1986 quotes one of Marks’ neighbors. “She told us from time to time,” the neighbor said, “that she just wanted to get out and see how poor people survived and lived, and that’s what she did.”
Wolin’s engagement with Pigeon Hill emerged from a similar spirit. Although his training as a police photographer may have initially nudged Wolin toward the crime story, socio-economic issues of the day sustained his interest in the neighborhood.
This one guy—it’s a hot summer day—he’s got his shirt off, he’s got a lot of tattoos, he’s drinking a fifth of Jack Daniels, right out of the bottle. A kid near him is skinning a raccoon.
"There was a lot of discussion of welfare at the time, and there was the crack epidemic," Wolin remembers. "There were a lot of issues being played out in the press and in our culture at large about poverty, class, and crime."
Wolin’s interest in poverty wasn’t just academic. His grandparents immigrated to New York from Eastern Europe and raised Wolin’s father in a tenement on the Lower East Side. Nonetheless, on Wolin’s first day shooting on "the hill", he didn’t exactly feel like an insider. "I was a bit nervous," he admits. "I was leery about going there, because I thought that harm would befall me, so I took one of my students who was six-three, two hundred fifty pounds."
The street life did seem pretty outlandish that first day, as Wolin recalls, "This one guy—it’s a hot summer day—he’s got his shirt off, he’s got a lot of tattoos, he’s drinking a fifth of Jack Daniels, right out of the bottle. A kid near him is skinning a raccoon."
But the apprehension wasn’t limited to the photographer’s side. One of his first subjects was nonplussed when Wolin asked to take her picture on 12th Street. "My first impression was, who is this strange guy," laughs Wendi Pemberton, "and why does he want to take my picture."
Everything was a fight. Everything was a struggle. There was always somebody wanting to beat you up for something. You had to learn how to survive.
Pemberton looks calm, cool, and tough in her Metallica t-shirt and rock-star hair in the portrait Wolin made of her a couple of years after that first encounter. She’d come to trust Wolin by then, a process that started the second time she ran into him. "A week or two later," she notes, "he came back up there and was walking around, and actually had the prints, and he would give you the picture of yourself, which I thought was really cool because for a lot of us up there our families didn’t have cameras and weren’t able to keep track of our different milestones in life."
"There I was, this IU professor with a camera," Wolin recalls. "And as I would bring back pictures each week, I became known as 'picture man'. The guy who did the pictures of everybody, of babies just born, high school graduations, proms, weddings. Whatever the event was, I was there to photograph."
It was Wolin’s way of paying back his subjects for opening up their lives and their stories to him. He writes parts of those stories, in the subject’s words, right on the pictures. The words besides Wendi’s 15-year-old portrait suggest a rough childhood.
"Everything was a fight," she adds. "Everything was a struggle. There was always somebody wanting to beat you up for something. You had to learn how to survive."
To make matters worse, Pemberton’s mother succumbed to addiction. Working as a nurse at Bloomington Hospital, she developed a pill problem and "went off the deep end" when Pemberton was nine, abandoning her husband and children. She didn't return for nine years.
By then, Pemberton was bound for greener pastures.
The Far Side Of The Hill
"I had to leave, no matter what it took," she promised herself. "I had to get out of there."
I had to leave, no matter what it took. I had to get out of there.
Pemberton's father had bought some land in the country and eventually built a house for the family. Pemberton graduated from high school and kept working, as she had since her first job cleaning houses at age 11. By 1991, Wolin had been photographing up on the hill for four years, when local press about his recently awarded Guggenheim fellowship prompted misunderstanding and suspicion on the part of two of his former subjects, one of whom threatened to sue him for a portion of the grant funds.
Even though most of his subjects supported him, Wolin asserts, "I became an issue. I felt uncomfortable. I like to be more invisible, you know, just 'picture man'."
So, "after some soul searching", "picture man" came down from the hill and trained his eye on different subject matter. For the next two decades, Wolin pursued photographic portraiture, with a storytelling component, focusing on other communities that had endured suffering—Holocaust survivors, and Vietnam War vets from all sides of the conflict. But in 2010, it was another murder that brought Wolin back to the hill.
Bookended By Murder
"On the front page of the local newspaper," he recalls, "there was the picture of a woman who’d been murdered. I recognized her face immediately as one of the children that I’d photographed."
Crystal Grubb's sad fate got Wolin wondering what happened to all the other people whose pictures he’d taken, whom he’d gotten close to. When making inquiries through the Crestmont Housing Authority proved unfruitful, Wolin volunteered to teach a summer photography class at the neighborhood Boys and Girls Club.
On the front page of the local newspaper, there was the picture of a woman who’d been murdered. I recognized her face immediately as one of the children that I’d photographed.
After every class Wolin would stand out on the sidewalk with a box of prints and ask every passerby whether she recognized any of his subjects. "Finally a woman said, 'I know this woman here and I can take you to her.' She drove me over to a house where I came face to face with one of the girls I’d photographed twenty years ago. And that was such a rush."
Word got around, and Wolin was able to reconnect with many of his original subjects. "I’ve now remet and rephotographed over 100 people from 25 years ago," he notes. "I’m 'picture man' again."
For a long time, though, one of Wolin’s former subjects eluded him. There was no trace of Wendi Pemberton.
"No," she concurs. " Because once I left I cut all ties. I felt I had to."
Then And Now
In the intervening decades, Pemberton worked hard, often doing traditionally male jobs. She worked her way up from the trenchesliterallyto her current position as a water quality engineer at the Indiana American Water Plant in Terre Haute.
She also got married, and had a child, who’s fifteen now. Pemberton was able to provide her daughter with an upbringing that has been "absolutely the opposite of what I grew up with."
Pemberton shares some of the details about her current life in the lines written on the portrait Wolin took of her after they finally reconnected on Facebook. In the picture, she’s emerging from the hot rod she’s just raced at the dragstrip—which she describes as her one indulgence. She looks cool and confident.
A Foreign Country In Your Hometown
Pigeon Hill Then and Now opened at a gallery in Lyon, France in late 2013. Wolin says French audiences were curious for a glimpse of what life in the US really looks like, off-screen. "They think everybody is Brad Pitt. There's a Hollywoodization of America."
But Pemberton asserts that you don’t have to be French to be unaware of the reality of lower class life in the US. She tells the story of being locked out of a friend’s apartment, and using her street smarts to break in. The friend was so impressed, that "she calls her friend at 2 o’clock in the morning who rushes over to meet us. And she doesn’t understand how we would even think to do that. So my sister explained, 'We’re from the ghetto, it’s how we do things," and she asked, 'There are ghettoes in Indiana?!'"
What Pemberton calls Bloomington’s ghetto is less than two miles away from Indiana University, but as a child, she remembers thinking about it as Oz. "IU was a dream that was never even feasible for us," she recalls. "It was too far out of grasp."
After graduating from high school, Pemberton’s daughter is hoping to enroll at IU.