Eye on Image-Making: Palmetto Portraits

The results of a massive four-year photography project are on display through Jan. 9, 2011, at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia. Called “Palmetto Portraits,” the exhibition features the work of 24 photographers who have created 275 color and black-and-white portraits of residents of the Palmetto State.

According to Paul Matheny, the museum’s curator of art, the portrait project began in 2006, when the Medical University of South Carolina, located in Charleston, decided to “provide inspiring images” on some of its interior walls. To launch the project, the university sought help from the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston. The idea, Matheny said, was to present the medical students and their teachers with images of the people whom they might one day serve.

Six photographers produced the first series of portraits in 2006. These six then invited six other photographers to produce the next year’s series, and so on through 2009. The only stipulation was that the photographers make an additional set of prints and donate them to the State Museum.

The current exhibition is the first time all of the photographs have been gathered in one place. Also on display are various objects — works of art and hand-crafted items — that were made by some of the portraits’ subjects.

A Conversation with a Camera Present

Wandering through the museum’s spacious Lipscomb Gallery, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes about photographic portraiture. When I interviewed San Francisco photographer Jock McDonald, he told me that a good portrait is “a conversation with a camera present.”

This, to me, represents the polar opposite of so many photographic portraits we see today in the mass media, which often seem formulaic and hastily conceived. No doubt the demands made on photographers — by both their employers and their subjects — account for some of these drawbacks.

I am willing to bet that the photographers who participated in the Palmetto Portraits Project, which is also the title of a beautifully produced book based on the exhibition, were under far fewer constraints than usually confront assignment photographers: they could choose their own subjects, and the deadline to complete the work was probably measured in months rather than hours or days.

I wondered how this would affect the work on display — would a leisurely conversation, to use McDonald’s metaphor, produce images that had more depth and substance than a quick chat?

Elbert’s Hierarchy

But how to judge? At this point, I turned to a hierarchy for judging photojournalistic photographs, devised by Joe Elbert during his 20-year career as the Washington Post’s assistant managing editor for photography. This hierarchy, described by Ken Kobré in “Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach,” consists of four categories: informational, graphic, emotional, and intimate.

Informational photographs give us the facts and little else, similar to a lead in a written story. Graphic photographs represent an attempt on the part of the photographer to make a eye-catching image out of a visually unappealing situation, using standard devices such as framing or wide-angle perspective.

Emotional photographs cause the viewer to both think and feel something about what they are seeing, thus often complementing the written text. Intimate photographs, the highest category on Elbert’s hierarchy, are ones that make the viewer feel like a participant in the events being pictured, rather than just an observer.

Stacy L. Pearsall

Armed with McDonald’s metaphor and Elbert’s hierarchy, I selected my favorite photographers and portraits. Not surprisingly, I was drawn to the work of Charleston-based Stacy L. Pearsall, retired Air Force photographer and two-time winner of the National Press Photographers Association “Military Photographer of the Year” award.

Her close-up images of recruits on South Carolina’s military bases give us a sense of the pride, commitment, hard work, and risk that come with military service. Pearsall is no embedded journalist — she lived the military life and shows us what that life means to these recruits, to her, and ultimately to us.

See for example Pearsall’s portrait of Joseph Wessick, U.S. Marine Corps recruit, sweat pouring down his face, struggling to complete some physical exercise, the number 29 written in black ink on his right hand, the number 1 on his left.

Military service involves relinquishing part of one’s individual identity to become a member of a cohesive team. But seen through Pearsall’s lens, Wessick remains very much his own person. with his own obstacles to overcome — face, wrists, and hands etched against a hazy blue sky.

Pearsall’s photographs have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, USA Today, Time, and on the BBC and CNN. She is the recipient of a Bronze Star and the Commendation of Valor for heroic actions under fire. Pearsall lives in Charleston, where she is owner and director of the Charleston Center for Photography.

Caroline Jenkins

In a completely different vein, the work of Caroline Jenkins is a bit quirky and offbeat, portraying a sense of ambiguity and vulnerability. One example: a haunting image of a young woman, lying on what looks like a bed and looking at the camera with large gray eyes, is captioned “Hope brings me to it & faith gets me through it.”

The “it” of the caption is left up to the viewer’s imagination, and we can’t tell by looking at the photograph if the young woman’s expression conveys sadness, acceptance, or hope. What is certain is that we feel emotionally close to this perfect stranger—and isn’t that one of the wonders of portrait photography?

Jenkins, who is based in Greenwood, received a BA in dance theater from the College of William and Mary in Virginia in 1981, moved to New York and worked as an actress, and then headed west to Los Angeles, where she worked in film, television, and commercial production.

Gayle Brooker

I was also drawn to the work of Gayle Brooker, whose portraits are more about the individuals being pictured than their environment or occupation. Pose, gesture, and body language reveal the personality of Brooker’s subjects — bringing us into their world as invited guests rather than as voyeurs.

A young couple — Helen Rice and Josh Nissenbolm — stand in front of what appears to be light gray concrete and corrugated metal. They are dressed in black and shades of gray. She leans into him with an arm and hand draped around his shoulder; her other hand fingers the front of his shirt.

Both are looking at the camera, posing as they might think fashion models should pose. We view them from medium distance; they neither invite us into their world nor shun our gaze. But we are free to imagine the nature of their relationship — actors, models, friends, lovers — and also to wonder what happens next, after the photographer leaves.

Brooker earned her BA from the College of Charleston in 1999, and then went on to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Rhode Island School of Design, where she received her MFA in photography in 2002.

Squire Fox

For sheer simplicity and photographic skill, it’s hard to beat the work of Squire Fox. These close-ups of adults and children — residents of Mt. Pleasant, a costal town just north of Charleston — are tightly cropped and printed life-sized, all shot against a black background, all lit softly from the side.

Some of Fox’s subjects gaze at the camera, whereas others look off to the side. We are given an intimate look at people we do not know—something rare in a society that usually respects personal space and appropriate social distance. The only people we normally view this close are people we know well, not total strangers. This ability to transcend social distance is a gift photography gives us.

Fox is a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he earned a BFA in photography. Moving to New York in 1993, Fox worked as an assistant for Gilles Bensimon, George Holz, Mary Ellen Mark, and Bruce Weber. His work has appeared in magazines such as Elle, Domino, Town and Country, Travel & Leisure, UK Condé Nast Traveller, and Vanity Fair.

With these many photographers and photographs to choose from, I have merely presented here some personal favorites. I encourage you to take a visual tour of the exhibition and learn more about all 24 of these outstanding South Carolina photographers. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

One Response to “Eye on Image-Making: Palmetto Portraits”

  1. I really like the squire fox shots. I love that level of simplicity and how captivating those shots are. Great article.

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