She exhibited her impressive collection of images in front of her family, friends and the public. Images include a photo taken of Graham Court at 116th Avenue and Seventh Avenue in 1910 and the same, updated location in 2014. Her favorite photos in the series features 110th Street and Cathedral Parkway/Eighth Avenue. In the photo circa 1900, one can see the Ninth Avenue El, New York’s first elevated railway. However, by present-day, the railway had been demolished. She was taken aback by the stark differences.
For Black, it’s important to document history because otherwise a person wouldn’t know the history that is right in front of them. She asked, “if you strip out history, what will you know about the past and how it leads to now?”
Black is a high-functioning autistic adult who recently graduated from LaGuardia Community College and is now a student at Marymount College where she is pursuing a degree in journalism and a minor in photography. She’s also an Ambassador to the school’s President Society. She developed a passion for photography at 13 years old. Still, she didn’t take her hobby seriously until a few years ago.
“I originally wanted to be an anchorperson, but I couldn’t do it because I was stuttering so much,” Black said. “I decided to pursue photojournalism because I could tell stories through images and like the old saying goes, ‘a photo is worth a thousand words.’”
Her art has been exhibited around the city and she earned both bronze and silver medals in the NAACP New York City Academic, Cultural Technological and Scientific Olympics. Interning with GAHS for about a year, Black was matched with the internship program by her school because she waited too long to choose an internship on her own. Since joining the internship program, however, Black said she has no regrets.
She started out doing simple tasks like scanning and captioning vintage images. One day, Bob Singleton, the executive director of GAHS, asked Black if anything had piqued her interest while she went through the photos. To her amazement, Black realized that many of the images showed an old New York that she didn’t know existed, particularly within her own neighborhood of Harlem.
“My views on New York City, especially within my neighborhood, has changed dramatically after seeing the transformations of the city,” Black said. “It was interesting to see how much the area changed in just a few decades.”
Black scheduled trips to the sites that she could recognize from the old photos and took the exact photo in present day. Her interest in covering neighborhoods within Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn grew steadily. Soon, Singleton and his colleague Debbie Van Cura approached Black about opening her own gallery show.
“Every week, Vernel came with a better set of photos, and we were so impressed that we wanted to teach her how to put together a show like the galleries do in SoHo,” Singleton said. “It’s really great to see her understanding and knowledge of her craft and her ability to put these photos together for the public over time.”
But the project didn’t only teach Black about photography. She learned important life lessons as well. For instance, if she could go back and speak to her younger self, the advice she would give is to take every opportunity and not be afraid to approach people. She learned that there are a lot more friendly people within the city that she had anticipated.
Through the process, Black also learned how to work with things like object labels and text panels. The project took about two months to complete, but Black has no plans to stop anytime soon. She plans to work more throughout the summer within Queens and Brooklyn, as well as in Manhattan neighborhoods like Washington Heights and Inwood.