Sometime late 2009 Julie Guidry called me up and asked me if I was interested in applying for a “Getty Grant for Good” to shoot an image library for Upstream Arts.
Upstream Arts is a Minneapolis based non-profit whose mission is to “enhance the lives of adults and youth with disabilities by fostering creative communication and social independence through the power of arts education”. The classes are taught by working artists including painters, sculptors, actors and dancers, who help their young clients explore different ways of expressing themselves. A pretty big deal for the participants, as it turns out.
Well, we didn’t get the grant, but filing the application started a thought process about how to portray people with disabilities. Most of the images we found out there were of sporty triumphs or happy-happy family moments, but almost nothing showed the complex human beings behind the disabilities. There was a need for straight-on portraiture. The more we talked about the project, the more interested I became, and eventually we decided to go ahead with the shoot. Grant money be damned.
On the way we stopped in Cleveland, since we’ve never been there. After we unloaded at the hotel, we went straight to Jacobs Field where we watched the Indians beat the Red Sox in convincing fashion. A very good omen for the trip. In my function as a semi-professional travel adviser, I’d like to recommend: If you ever find yourself in Cleveland in the summer, try to go to a baseball game there. It’s really what baseball should be like in my opinion. A nice, smallish stadium, relaxed atmosphere, borderline affordable beers and sausages, and no $1500 seat in sight (and I’m saying this as a Yankee fan)
We made another stop in Chicago and then it was onwards to Minneapolis with only a few hours lost due to a little automotive health issue.
Once in Minneapolis we started working at the shoot which was going to happen at the Jewish Community Center in St. Paul (which is the Twin in the Twin Cities). We went there for a quick location scout and requested one of their rooms large enough to set up our studio and provide space for models and their caretakers to hang out. The library fit the bill.
Julie Guidry did a great job finding our models and arranging the time table for the shoot.
I needed a few more pieces of equipment like c-stands and sandbags and we borrowed them from Jeff Cords, a local photographer at 8th Street Studio. Jeff beside being a great still life shooter, is a regular supporter of Upstream Arts and an all around good guy.
For the lighting we used Profotos Acutes and 7bs (plugged in). There was a head with a beauty dish to the right of the camera and a head with a grid on the left. There were also one head with a grid on each side behind and above the model.
The camera was a Mamiya RZ 67 (which really shines during close up portraiture) with a Phase One P25 back.
The entire shoot happened in one afternoon. Our first model was Caleb, Julie’s stepson. He was also our toughest customer, since he was a bit under the weather and in a bad mood. He had a hard time sitting still in front of the camera. We took our time, showed him the entire set up from the camera to the lights, and how everything worked. Whenever we did that Caleb gave us between 45 seconds to a minute in front of the camera. The images turned out pretty well though and Caleb wound up on the cover of our Magcloud Magazine and the postcard of our exhibition.
After that the other models and their caretakers started showing up and to my relief the other shoots were easier than the first one. Most of the participants were really into the shoot. Since I was shooting digitally, I was able to immediately show them the images on a monitor, which helped a lot with the collaboration. The models had a wide range of disabilities and our interactions reflected that. Quite a bit of the communication between the models and me happened non-verbally and many creative decisions were based on gut feelings. There was a pretty high energy on the set, but most of the models managed only about ten minutes in front of the camera before they were exhausted.
Every good portrait is a collaboration between the photographer and the model. It takes a bit of courage to really look hard at somebody but it takes quite a bit more courage to show yourself when somebody is staring at you through a lens. Looking now at the finished images I feel fortunate about the openness and sense of generosity with which these young people approached the shoot.
Julie Guidry organized a show of this portrait series at Intermedia Arts Gallery in Minneapolis and tonight is the closing reception (and Upstream Arts fundraiser). It’ll be interesting to see the reactions and hear the opinions of the models first hand.
On a last (and own horn tooting) note: I just found out that four of the images made it into American Photography 27.
2822 Lyndale Ave. South
Minneapolis, MN 55408
April 5th through April 18th, 2011
Monday-Friday 10AM to 6PM, Saturdays 12PM to 5PM
Closing Reception and Upstream Arts Benefit:
Monday, April 18th, 6:30-8:30 PM