VILLAGE – Photographs by Troy Williams | Text by Magali Duzant

How do you create a record of a place on the cusp of extreme change? Do you photograph the buildings? The street signs? Or do you focus on the people — those who animate and embody the city streets?

Vali, New York City, 2022 Troy Williams

In Troy Williams’ portrait series, VILLAGE, the streets of downtown New York (primarily the Lower East Side), are brought to life in rich black and white by the distinct personalities who have posed for his camera. Two curly-haired blondes in leather lean into each other on a bench. A fellow photographer, camera on hip, gazes out at the viewer. Posed against walls of brick, graffiti, ads or hanging out in front of park foliage and chain link fence, the denizens of the city are goths, punks, skaters, and hippies. Steven, eyes closed, leans shirtless against a tree. Vali holds up the gauzy ends of a skirt. Brandy, hands on hips, stands in the entrance of a restaurant. Bat, dressed head to toe in black, is wreathed in the crisp light that cuts between columns.

Steven, New York City, 2022 Troy Williams

As New York began to emerge from lockdowns and a second wave of the Covid-19 virus there was a palpable feeling in the air. For Williams, it was a desire to connect again with the world, “I had never done portraiture before or street photography. It was all new to me. I think a lot of people had a bit of a rebirth during the pandemic, in both good and awful ways,” he says. “I wanted to focus on the sense of reinventing yourself. I started roaming around with my camera and meeting people.”

Nina, New York City, 2022 Troy Williams

With time, his initial shyness began to ebb as he found out how much people were up for being photographed. New Yorkers were perfect subjects allowing him to show a certain “sensibility” in the portraits. “A lot of people truly like to live out loud, aesthetically, but also in the way that they share themselves in conversation with a stranger,” he explains. “I found that once I started doing this, there was such an intimate connection happening, even if it was for a fleeting moment. I felt that I was sharing something with them that was like a little miracle.”

Venus Mizrahi, New York City, 2022 Troy Williams

Williams’ subjects hold their own against a city that is always on. An air of confidence surrounds them, they know they are in the right place. For Williams, “part of the idea with this project is that New York is changing in drastic ways. A lot of things are disappearing. There is this feeling that it’s not going to last much longer, or that it’s going to change dramatically.”

Brandy, New York City, 2022 Troy Williams

In a prior project, I Want To Know What Love Is (I Want You To Show Me), whose title came from a power ballad by the band Foreigner, Williams created a series of evocative scenes of adolescent life. Full of nostalgia, mystery, and glowing light, the figures feel on the verge of discovering something. One can almost hear an atmospheric soundtrack emanating from the edges. The visual representation of music has influenced the photographer’s work, from its mood to lyrical compositions.

Bat, New York City, 2022 Troy Williams

In VILLAGE, music isn’t far away, but this time it’s the beat of an individual drummer—one that comes from within his subjects, each one tapping out a rhythm in their own style. Viewed in full, the portraits form a chorus. Where Williams’ earlier work felt dreamlike, his new portraits are fully immersed in the here and now, pulling from past and present, luxuriating in the layering that builds up on city streets. At times it seems hard to place the year; this might be 1983 or 2003 or now. If his earlier work examined some of the uncertainty and yearning of youth then it is only a logical next step for this current series to be immersed in the spirit of belonging and freedom found on downtown city streets.

Sayla, New York City, 2022 Troy Williams

There is a romance to Williams’ portraits, an embrace and a celebration of community, a protest to the rapid flattening of the city landscape into cookie-cutter developments. In VILLAGE, Williams has recorded a little miracle, finding those who have found themselves where they belong.

This beautiful series of portraits was a top winner in the LensCulture Portrait Awards 2023. For more striking portraits and new discoveries, check out the rest of the 39 winners here.

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