Local photographer’s exhibit about life along Germantown Ave. opens Friday

Melvin A. Chappell is a New York City native, but since the photographer’s “transplant” to Germantown some 25 years ago, he feels like an official Philadelphian. This week, Chappell’s latest photo exhibit marks another big transition for the artist.

Local fans can meet Chappell when “Germantown Ave: A Photographer’s Notebook” opens at the Germantown Historical Society (5501 Germantown Ave.) with a free reception at 5 p.m. Friday.

About the artist

Chappell’s photographs have appeared in juried exhibitions statewide at places including Harrisburg’s State Museum, the Erie Art Museum and Chestnut Hill’s Woodmere Art Museum.

Having spent many years as a nature and landscape-focused photographer, the 60-year-old said that he’s been a camera enthusiast for the past decade and a half.

He pointed to travels through iconic American-landscape vistas like Yosemite and Acadia national parks as having sparked his interest in nature photography.

Moving to Philadelphia offered benefits besides a much more reasonable cost of living, compared to New York City, too.

Local inspirations

Chappell said he loves both “living in a city that has one of the largest urban parks in the world” and the “natural beauty” of the Wissahickon Valley.

The Morris Arboretum was among the local sites that encouraged him to bring a camera into the woods.

He’s entered his pictures in the Friends of the Wissahickon’s annual photo contest since its 1997 inception and has won several awards.

Morris Arboretum visitors can also see Chappell’s images on posters and postcards in the gift shop, and the photographer has also worked with Historic RittenhouseTown, the site of North America’s first paper mill, where calendars featuring Chappell’s work have been sold for the past two years.

The latest show

Recently, the photographer found himself wanting a new challenge. That’s what his latest show is about.

“I needed something to shake me up, to challenge me to look at photography differently,” he said, chatting with NewsWorks this week while installing the Historic Germantown exhibition.

Taking a break from trees and landscapes, he decided to try his hand at street photography.

His newest show is the result of two years at work up and down a nine-mile stretch of Germantown Avenue, focusing mainly on his home area of Germantown and Mt. Airy.

He said he wants to capture the Avenue’s historical aspect as well as its modern heartbeat.

“The slogan that we have, calling it ‘Freedom’s Backyard,’ is not just a slogan but actually a factual statement about what has taken place along the Avenue,” he said, mentioning history like the Battle of Germantown (images from the annual October re-enactment appears in the show) and North America’s first anti-slavery petition, almost 100 years before the Revolutionary War.

But the show is also about contemporary Germantown “where I actually get out on the street corners and meet people and engage people,” Chappell added.

He said he knows many locals are working toward “a renaissance on the Avenue,” and tried to capture that by including day-to-day images from many businesses operating along the corridor.

He said his show represents all of Germantown’s many cultures, but as an African-American artist himself, there is a special focus on that community.

“I tell you that every day I go out there, there’s always something new to photograph,” he said. “The city is constantly active and constantly changing. This is a project that never ends.”

Melvin A. Chappell’s “Germantown Ave: A Photographer’s Notebook” exhibit runs at the Germantown Historical Society from Friday through Aug. 15.

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