How Photo Flood St. Louis Captured All 79 City Neighborhoods
Nine years ago, Jason Gray drew up a plan. It was an ambitious plan, to say the least: a nine-year effort to capture all 79 neighborhoods in the city of St. Louis, with professional and amateur photographers working together to “flood” each one for two hours on a chosen day and “record it in a surge of imagery.”
The fledgling organization’s first event drew just five photographers, all friends of Gray’s. But things grew from there — to the point that Photo Flood St. Louis now counts 610 members.
Perhaps more surprisingly, it made good on its founder’s ambitions without delay or disruption. This past March, the entirely volunteer organization chronicled its 79th city neighborhood right on schedule. Then, it added a few regional locations for good measure before circling back to the neighborhood where it began: Downtown. With that, this month, it officially completed the nine-year plan Gray drew up in 2012.
Gray said he initially saw the project as a way to encourage networking among local photographers, but also to reacquaint himself with the city. A wedding and portrait photographer, he worked in Chicago for years before returning to his native St. Louis. (As a boy he lived in the city’s Dutchtown neighborhood; today he makes his home in Holly Hills.)
“Part of it was finding my place in the city again,” he explained on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “Having been gone for such a long time, there was so much of the city that was familiar but also was unfamiliar. I wanted to find where I fit in that matrix again and see some of the things I didn’t know and share that with people around the area.”
Gray said he’s encountered “quite a few” surprises exploring the city. He cited the city’s West End neighborhood, the final one to be completed, as a surprise to many members. North Pointe, a quaint, suburban-style neighborhood in the city’s far north side, also offered an awakening.
In some neighborhoods, like Downtown, the photographers blended in with tourists snapping shots. In others, they inadvertently drew a lot of attention. Visiting Walnut Park East and Walnut Park West in consecutive months last year, they were greeted by Alderwoman Pamela Boyd on the second stop.
“[She’d] received so many calls about our presence, that she came out to investigate,” Gray recalled. “We ended up having a great conversation, and I got the opportunity to interview her as part of that.”
Photo Flood’s work doesn’t just include buildings; frequently, the photographers interact with the people they meet and, with their consent, take their picture. “There’s usually an interaction,” Gray noted. After the fact, he said, people sometimes ask for copies of the photos or share stories about acquaintances when they spot them on the Photo Flood St. Louis website.
Overall, he said, chronicling the city for the past near-decade has left him with a sense of promise, a place on the upswing.
“St. Louis is definitely a much better place now than it was when I was a kid,” said Gray. “It’s more vibrant, there are more opportunities for people to express themselves, it’s a more equitable city. I definitely think we’re on the right track to where we need to be.”
Gray said he suspects that if other people explored the city to the extent that Photo Flood’s photographers have, they’d have a better impression of the city as well.
“I think the opportunity to walk around and meet people in their own neighborhoods, and learn about their experiences directly from them, just outside their homes, it’s definitely created a different impression than if I had just read about those,” he said.
What: Jason Gray: Mound City Chronicle
When: August 30-September 30, 2021
Where: Contemporary Gallery at St. Louis Community College, Forest Park
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.