Mar 1

Mural Arts Through The Lens of Its Staff Photographer

by: Chad Eric Smith

Muhammed Ali had Howard Bingham. President Obama had Pete Souza. Mural Arts Philadelphia has Steve Weinik. Over the last 16 years, Weinik has documented Mural Arts’ journey to becoming the largest and most impactful public art program in the nation, dedicated to the belief that art ignites change. As the world-renowned organization’s Staff Photographer and Senior Manager for Digital Media and Technology, Weinik is chiefly responsible for the images that capture Mural Arts’ work over the years, as seen on TV, and digital and print materials. Philadelphia is the “Mural Capital of the World,” and, yet, you don’t even need to travel to Philadelphia to see proof (of course, we invite you to nonetheless). Casually peruse Mural Arts’ website, and you will come across thousands of beautiful photos of the mural-making process, mural dedications, paint days, film screenings, interactive workshops, and more, moments frozen in time displaying the transformative power of art. 

Mural Arts has provided me with a wide and unique view of Philadelphia. I’ve got a mental model in my head of every neighborhood, its streets, corridors, intersections, parks, schools, etc. In all of these places, I’ve made connections and built personal relationships.

- Steve Weinik

Weinik’s career at Mural Arts began as an Office Manager. He has worn many hats since then, but the work he is most known for within the organization and city-wide is as a talented photographer.  According to Weinik’s personal website, his photos have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN, CBS Sunday Morning, The Guardian, Juxtapoz, designboom, Wired.com, Time Magazine, Popular Photography, The Wall Street Journal, and The Sundance Institute, as well as dozens of other books, journals, periodicals, newspapers, and countless websites. 

Born and raised in the Germantown neighborhood of Northwest Philadelphia, Weinik always indulged in a creative outlet. Between photography, visual art, music, and writing, it was photography that “won out over time.” He does, however, get the itch to write periodically. 

“As soon as I hit the lottery, I’ll go buy a house by the water, photograph wildlife, and write a novel,” says Weinik.

Weinik’s first photo “gigs” were for his friends in the creative community. He photographed concerts and dance performances which was a great way to practice, experiment, and build a reputation. All these years later, the majority of his paid photography still focuses on artists, and their work, which he has found is a great way “to build networks and develop a niche.”

Working within your personal networks is a great way to experiment and build experience. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Weinik has dabbled as a filmmaker, too. His research, photography, production, and on-screen time in the documentary Resurrect Dead helped earn the film an official selection of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, winning the directing award in the United States Documentary category.

INTERVIEW 

I sat down with Weinik to learn more about what he does and why he does it. Below is an excerpt from our conversation:

Hey Steve! So, tell me, what do you like most about being Mural Arts' staff photographer? 

Experiencing the city and making these connections through a subject viewed almost universally as a positive, is unique and special. There are very few jobs that open so many doors in so many places in the city of Philadelphia.

What type of moments do you like capturing for Mural Arts the most? 

My favorite moments happen when a handful of elements converge, and I’m in the position to document it. For final mural photos, I can plan for light, and think about composition, but what makes an image truly special is when something unexpected lines up in just the right way. Like the person who stopped in this image to admire Felix St. Fort and Gabe Tiberino’s Cecil B. Moore Philadelphia Freedom Fighters mural.

Cecil B. Moore Philadelphia Freedom Fighters © 2021 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Felix St. Fort & Gabe Tiberino, 2201 College Avenue. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Or while photographing Kaitlin Pomerantz’s On the Threshold, I asked a man feeding animals in the park if he minded being in photos. A minute later, a squirrel hopped onto a stoop and stretched its tiny sunlit paws out for a peanut. This work takes time, patience, planning, and luck. It’s great when those elements converge.

On The Threshold © 2017 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Kaitlin Pomerantz, Washington Square. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Why do you think the work you do is important? 

Jim Prigoff was an early documenter of graffiti and muralism. Without him doing what he did, a lot of the artwork in his archive would have been lost or forgotten. Throughout his career, he became known globally, published books, and traveled extensively.

Prigoff at the 1AM Gallery for The Classics – 2010, San Francisco, CA

When he died last year at age 93, it became clear to me that despite his notoriety, there was still no guarantee that the majority of his work and the work of many of the artists he uplifted wouldn’t be lost and forgotten anyway. One reason for that revelation is that I’m the person now largely responsible for maintaining his Philadelphia collection. This work is preserved through the time and effort of people who care enough to do it.

Mural Arts does unique and important work. Over the decades it has made itself a leader in the world of public art. It’s also an organization that has lacked institutional recordkeeping. I see my work as two-fold. The first part of it is to create a visual archive of the largest public art program in the United States. The second is to work to ensure that records are kept, names are remembered, and the collection is included in the larger public record. The work Mural Arts does is temporary. The organization owes it to itself and to the artists that it works with to keep, maintain, and share its body of work.

 

I love that! It makes me think of a quote by Katie Thurmes in which she said, "We take photos as a return ticket to a moment otherwise gone." Please name a few of your favorite murals over the years that you've had the pleasure of photographing. 

Way too many to mention but here are a few:

James Burns’ North Philadelphia Beacon Project (aka) Rise, north-facing wall. The best view happened to be from the Cardiology ward at Temple University Hospital near Broad and Tioga. After convincing the hospital to let me shoot through the window of an empty patient room, I was lucky to get a perfect autumn sunset.

The North Philadelphia Beacon Project © 2013 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / James Burns, 2701 North Broad Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Untitled by Amy Sherald. I was able to witness the process of this project from start to finish. The mural itself was incredibly simple to photograph, but the artwork and the process leading up to it make it one of my favorites.

untitiled © 2019 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Amy Sherald, 1108 Sansom Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny by King Britt and Josh Mays. Another one where the process was something special, and the artwork beautiful. I also cheated just a little with this one, spending about 6 hours over the course of about a week painstakingly photoshopping out wires and their shadows.

Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny © 2018 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Joshua Mays & King Britt, 53rd and Lansdowne. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Familias Separadas / Somos Seres Humanos (We Are Human Beings) by Michelle Angela Ortiz. In 2015, (and in a world before drone photography) this message was temporarily stenciled outside the former ICE facility at 16th and Callowhill. The front desk laughed at me when I asked if I could photograph it from one of their windows, so one of my colleagues drove a boom lift from a nearby site for me to use instead.

Familias Separadas © 2015 Michelle Angela Ortiz. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, 1600 Callowhill Street. Philadelphia. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Please name a few of your favorite public programs or events over the years that you've had the pleasure of photographing. 

That’s tricky. A lot of the time photographing an event means not fully participating. I’m thinking about coverage, angles, and staying out of people’s way. Also, some of the most memorable events don’t necessarily produce the most stunning photos. Five Stories with the artist Swoon, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, is probably my favorite Mural Arts event of all time. None of that translates into still photos though. Other than that, Love Letter tours featuring Steve Powers as a guide are always fun and surprisingly informative, and any event featuring Ursula Rucker is automatically something special.

We Stiill Here! dedication, August 6, 2021. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Is there anything else you'd like people to know about you or your work? 

I also love photographing birds and wildlife! A few years ago, camera sensors got dense enough, and half-decent wildlife lenses got cheap enough to make it a viable and satisfying hobby. My non-work/non-client photography since 2020 has almost exclusively been bird photos. Winter is owl season. I’ll end with a few of my favorites from the past few months. 

 

  • Great horned owl, Philadelphia, 2022. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Northern saw-whet owl, Philadelphia area, 2022. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Eastern Screech Owl in Philadelphia, 2021. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Check out more of Weinik's work at photos.steveweinik.com and follow him on Instagram @steveweinik. 

Last updated: Mar 1, 2022

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David J Huisken says

Thanks for sharing this information regarding the photographer & archivist.