“Ihave to photograph. I do it all the time,” Emily Najera said. “I’ll wake up and I’ll say the light is right. And then I’ll go.” Najera, an artist originally from Metro Detroit, has been this way ever since her mother bought her her first camera at 13.
Early in her teens, Najera started photographing architecture. In high school and college, she became interested in documenting gentrification. She was inspired by photographers like Berenice Abbott, who photographed the shifting landscape of New York in the 1930s, and Walker Evans, who photographed storefronts during the Great Depression.
“It’s mainly photographers who are photographing the everyday landscape, and they’re really looking for beauty in the everyday,” Najera said. “[It’s] the places that we just tend to drive past and maybe we don’t even visually engage with that often, but those are the types of places that I find inspiring.”
When Najera was in graduate school at the University of Nevada, Reno, Photography Professor Peter Goin was her mentor. She said his black and white photographs of San Francisco architecture inspired her and kept her interested in thinking about gentrification.
“Just watching the evolution of the places and really thinking about the people who have interacted within those places over time, always is what attracts me to those types of environments,” Najera explained. “And then the thought that they could disappear and be gone forever … Once they are gone, the only evidence exists in people’s memories and then through the photographs of those places.”
Najera has photographed gentrification in cities like Grand Rapids, Michigan and Reno, always aiming to capture the everyday places before they change.
“I really truly photograph them for myself,” she said. … I just want to document them because I know that they’re changing.”
In addition to her art practice, Najera has done a lot of freelancing photo work for the New York Times, NPR and ProPublica. In this world, she photographs a wide range of subjects, including gentrification, portraits, and just about anything else.
“You have to be a really good listener when you’re photographing people for these stories and be really willing to collaborate too, because you’re working with so many people,” Najera said. “But you also have to stay true to yourself and your vision, which I think is so important to me anyway.”
Najera’s upcoming exhibition In This Place, which will be on display at the Oats Park Art Center in Fallon, includes over a decade’s worth of Reno architecture photos—images of houses, small businesses, storefronts, and hotels in downtown and Midtown. Taken together, these images clearly portray the current era of push and pull between historic preservation and economic expansion in this fast-growing city.
“I just want them to see this visual timeline over the past decade,” Najera said. “I’m tracking time through my photographs. And that’s really what the exhibition is about … It’s looking at this timeline of Reno, a timeline of places and how they’ve changed, how some of them have stayed the same, how some of them are completely gone. And it just really gives you an archive of place … an archive of Reno.”
Najera explained that the goal with this “archive of Reno” is to give people a feeling of what a sense of place is to a community.
“It’s an ongoing project,” she said. “I don’t really ever see it ending. It’s kind of who I am. My art is truly about my love of Reno. … And I hope when people look at my photographs, they can feel how connected I am to the places I photograph.”
Emily Najera is also known by her maiden name, Emily Rogers.
Her solo exhibition In This Place—Photographs of Reno will be on view at the Oats Park Art Center in Fallon March 11-June 17. A reception and artist talk are scheduled for 5-7 pm May 6.
The gallery at Oats Park is open by appointment and during events, including this weekend’s concert by Laney Lou & the Bird Dogs, an Americana band from Bozeman, Montana, March 11, 7 pm. For gallery appointments, call 775-423-1440 or email email@example.com.
You can see more of Emily’s work on her website.
Artwork images courtesy of Emily Najera
Cover photo: Eric Marks
This article, produced by Double Scoop, was first published in the Reno News & Review on March 5.