A Photographic Journal of New York City – A Tripod Quest: Art and Eats at Vanessa’s

I do not know Edward Cheng, though by now, I feel I should. The both of us are teaching assistants at the International Center of Photography, except he’s been there for years, and I, mere months. My last visit to the photo center, I came across a flyer about a little exhibit Edward was having, documenting Eldridge Street and the surrounding blocks that comprise an area he has affectionately called “Echito” or “east of Chinatown”, where he has spent much of his life. Cheng’s photographic project is currently being held at Vanessa’s Dumpling House, on Eldridge Street, between Grand and Broome Streets.

To be perfectly honest with you, the initial draw were the dumplings.

I’ve gone to Vanessa’s a few times before, and frankly, I can’t leave without any doughy goodness digesting inside my tummy. And it goes without saying that the prices are easy on the wallet. I mean, $15 bucks for 26 dumplings and 9 pork buns?! Do the math, and the answer you give should be: “Do you take VISA or Mastercard”?.

But I’m digressing.  (They do though, have a $15 minimum) Ok, really…

I never pass up on an opportunity to stop by Vanessa’s, and so this exhibit was, by no means, something I would miss. Truthfully, though, I was genuinely intrigued by the decision to hold the exhibit at Vanessa’s. In fact, I had to double check a few times to make sure that I wasn’t simply tricked into believing artwork would be displayed there and actually distract me from my feasting of dumpling.

But as I stated earlier, Edward is a local in the area, and it makes perfect sense for him to put up his work at a joint as established as this one (dare I say, institution?). I was rather encouraged actually, after reading about Edward Cheng’s roots in the neighborhood. It further confirms that notion I have that the best art we can produce begins with whatever is closest to home. Besides, it is a mutually beneficial arrangement: from December to mid-January, any starving artist can find a safe and satiating haven. For at least an half hour.

Waiting for the dumplings I ordered to cook, I realized how interesting it was for me to see these black-and-whites photographs suspended right above the customers chowing down on their dumpling dishes. I felt as if I was the only customer in museum-mode. (I can’t blame them of course.) Still, I wasn’t really phased, the dumplings were still simmering, and I needed a closer look.

While I had no set expectations, I was pleasantly surprised at how the set was actually more street portraiture than scenic shots of the neighborhood. The everyday characters in his photographs were taken in a larger-than-life kind of way: many of which were fully-centered, and shot close up, taking up most of the frame, with “Echito” serving as each subject’s backdrop.

There are 14 photographs displayed at Vanessa’s, and given the quality of his work, why not support a local photographer, and in turn, support a local business? Chances are I’ll run into Edward Cheng eventually, and it is also likely that I’ll make several return trips to Vanessa’s for the pork buns. But for those of you who have yet to pay a visit to this dumpling joint, I suggest that you do, while Edward’s pictures can serve as a subtle, yet satisfying, distraction.

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