The life of a portrait photographer isn’t all brides, babies, and watching the birdie. The discipline encompasses many different styles, formats and focal points. But there’s one thing that all good portraits have in common — they capture the subject’s character in one frozen moment. In Palmetto Portraits IV, MUSC and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art have teamed up to tell the stories of everyday people with a brand new collection of photographs.
The project began as an imaginative way to brighten up the interiors of some of MUSC’s newest buildings. University President Ray Greenberg realized that he didn’t have to go the traditional route of putting up framed Monet posters. With the same amount of money, he could display original, local art instead. But he wasn’t sure how to put the idea into action.
Greenberg contacted three Charleston photographers — Michelle Van Parys, Jack Alterman, and Mark Sloan, director and senior curator at the Halsey. Looking at the space available in the Hollings Cancer Center, Greenberg and his advisors discerned that there would be room for work from six photographers in the first year of the project, with another three years’ worth as more buildings were erected. Sloan, Van Parys, and Alterman all contributed work to the exhibition, along with Phil Moody of Rock Hill, Jon Holloway from Greenwood, and former City Paper photographer Nancy Santos. The first 60 shots went up in March 2007, premiering in MUSC’s Education Center and Library before being moved to the Cancer Center to make way for a sequel show.
In each phase of the project, new photographs debuted in the large public space of the Education Center before being moved elsewhere. Each contributor chose a successor, so by the final phase — episode IV — 24 photographers had been involved with the show, creating almost 300 specific pieces. “It hearkens back to government-sponsored programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Farm Security Administration (FSA),” says Sloan, a member of the project committee, “when they would send the likes of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans out to photograph people.”
That’s exactly what MUSC initiative is all about — finding and representing people in the Lowcountry, Midlands, and Upstate.
There’s a surprising variety of faces and settings in Palmetto Portraits IV, launched on Sept. 16th at the pristine James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine. Where else could you find firefighters and factory workers, priests and roller derby queens, musicians and reenactors, all in the same place?
The contributors have been given no restrictions. There are close-ups, wide shots, two or three subjects in some pictures, studio-bound or environmental set-ups, digital and inkjet prints. On the ground floor, waiting patients are flanked by military personnel, documented at Fort Jackson, Parris Island, and Charleston Air Force Base by the Charleston Center for Photography’s Stacy L. Pearsall. These young guns are engaged in the kind of drills you don’t expect to find in a dental college. With her martial theme, Pearsall sticks to what she knows best; she is a veteran and a two-time National Press Photographers Association Military Photographer of the Year, the only woman to win the award twice. Her richly hued digital prints show the many sides of the military, from dashing to dorky, smiling to serious. No matter what the pose or location, the youth of the subjects is always emphasized.
Columbia’s Jeff Amberg takes a grittier approach, lensing BMW Manufacturing plant workers in their environment. In that series, each frame contains two portraits. Once again there’s a contrast between the clowners and frowners, with smiling and grim expressions on the different faces. Amberg varies his style more than anyone else in the show, with one black and white, a studio portrait, and a couple of candid angles.
Also from Columbia, Brett Flashnick mixes clear-cut photos like “Nelson Garvin,” showing an anti-Santa guarding his Garbage Party Shop, with carefully posed images like “Bill Elliott, Harbor Pilot” standing beside his boat and “Bobby Dredd, Bassist” with his guitar. Mt. Pleasant’s Squire Fox has gone a different route, sticking to head-and-shoulder shots taken in his home studio. Fittingly for a series that concentrates on kids, his work is displayed in Pediatrics.
Andrew Haworth of Columbia has taken some great photographs of rural folk. Some, like chicken farmer Julian Bair, are seen in their workplace; others, like Blue Cross employee Stephanie Masek, are in costume in unusual and picturesque settings.
Chris M. Rogers of Johns Island concentrates on the congregation of his local Greater St. John AME Church, showing young children and the eldest mother in the group, all shown on a heavenly white background. Charleston resident Molly Hayes chooses historical reenactments as a theme, incorporating incongruities like a Bluetooth receiver on a Gullah culture educator.
All of the photographs are polished and professional, a subtle yet constant reminder to MUSC staff, faculty, and students of the people that they serve.