There, but for the grace of god, go I
After taking the first 15 color snapshots of homeless men for a church fundraiser for IHELP, a good friend, Barbara Bullock Wilson, suggested I put up an exhibit. I winced because the photos weren’t that good. She said to look at them again. I did. They were still amateurish. She said the portraits had shifted her response toward homelessness from one of sympathy to one of empathy. I looked again, and she was right. In the portraits, the men looked like the rest of us. We could relate to them. Instead of feeling sorry for them, our first response is “There but for the grace of god go I”.
As soon as Barbara said that, I thought of the inherent worth and dignity of the portraits Dorothea Lange made during the depression. I also thought of the importance of the lighting and texture of Karsh’s black and white portraits of the most famous people of the last century. I immediately knew I wanted to do the portraits again in black and white with studio lighting…but with the worth and dignity of Lang’s images.
I had no experience with portraiture or studio lighting. My wife, Sharon, gave me a basic portable studio for Christmas a month later and I showed up at an IHELP dinner with a carload of boxes and not a clue of how to use what was in them.
The journey begins…
Over dinner, I told the men that I wanted to shoot again more formally and they agreed. By then we had a strong relationship. I explained I had no experience with this kind of photography and that it would be trial and error. They didn’t care. They cleared the table and unloaded the car. They helped set up the equipment. One of the men, a new guy, began directing us. “That’s a light stand put it over there. That’s a strobe, put it on the light stand with an umbrella.”
“Chris”, I said, “you seem to know what your doing. Did you work for a studio photographer?”
“No”, he whispered, “I have a Masters in Fine Art Photography from Rensselaer Polytech. I know…you want to know what I’m doing here…don’t ask.” I didn’t. Chris asked what I wanted the portraits to look like and I told him…between Lange and Karsh. He liked the idea and gave me a three hour workshop on studio portrait photography with an eye toward Karsh like lighting.
Chris saved me six months of trial and error. He was gone from the program before I could give him a copy of his portrait. Three years later, I saw him at a coffee shop working on his laptop. He’s now COO of an animation company in Denver and has joint custody of his son. He said the IHELP program saved his life.