I made a goal this year. To have some kind of art show. Many of us photographers with today’s social media never get the opportunity to, actually, walk up to one of our photos and see it on something besides a hunk of glass with a blue glow.
All those megapixels gone to waste by 72dpi Facebook Page’s and Blogs.
The opportunity presented itself when I received a call from The Calgary Homeless Foundation: They wanted to contract me for a first of its kind art project, here in southern Alberta. It wasn’t my first time dealing with CHF and I was more than happy to help and I didn’t even ask how much it paid.
The Calgary Homeless Foundation, in conjunction with This is My City are building a 30 unity assisted living condominium for those transitioning from homelessness in what is known as the Beltline. I had a lot of creative control, I was basically left to my own devices, but here’s what the parameters were….
1. The photos were going onto the side of the house, and were going to be four feet, by six feet….you heard me right, and no I didn’t use a medium format camera for the images 😛 About twelve in total would be drilled into the dilapidated house, marked for demolition, beautifying the it and area while it’s marked for demolition.
2. The images had to be within the boundaries of the Beltline, and of both architecture and people.
Obviously I started pretty much straight away.
It was spring…so here in Alberta that’s still a smattering of winter in between Chinooks. After establishing what is definitively The Beltline, I started hitting the pavement. I asked myself how I could get images that said “I know that place!” and “But where is that?” at the same time. It was a real contradiction. Another paradox, I also had to keep my end game in mind: That these images needed to be diverse, as they were going to put together in a collage on the side of an abandoned house. What that means is I love shooting brick walls, graffiti, and abandoned houses, all things that would look silly if I slapped onto another house. There were a lot of things that were “out” just because the unique situation of my “canvas”.
One rule I did break in photography though. When we met to discuss details, such as what colour to paint the side of the house, my instinct was to say “18% grey” but what same out was “sunset orange”. I wanted it to punch and stand out on the block.
I was out one day. I had my Canon 5D Mark II and a 70-200 f4L lens. The lens’s auto focus failed after 20 minutes in the -12C weather. It worked fine the next day but I knew this was probably the best time to start gathering portraits…indoors. Again, they all had to be within the Beltline. My heart immediately went to small businesses as an idea.
Small businesses are a soft spot for me because I have one of my own. I also know that they have to be community driven to survive. Another bonus was I’d be able to shoot images inside businesses, through windows, from second floors, etc.
I knew that if I called or emailed and tried to schedule portrait sessions, I would not get what I needed. This was a numbers game. I did feel like a telemarketer too for the first couple. I really had no idea how people would react, and I also had no idea what I was going to say, then I realized that likely worked out in my favour.
I’d walk in, and wait for someone to greet me, unless it was a cafe or other situation where I had to go to a counter. It was when they asked me “can I help you?” I’d start by saying who I was working for, and I was hoping to get some interior shots. When I got a “yes” I’d follow up with the info on the portraits. I did the whole “get them to say yes to something small before the big sell” pitch. Not all of the portraits I made were completely impromptu, but most. One Sunday I went to the Calgary Opera House and started pulling on doors until one opened and I tip toed into a theatre rehearsal, but made a connection and came back and photographed the Director and CEO….and his little dog too!!
The DOAP Team
Another planned portrait, was with the DOAP team. An organization that dedicates itself to helping the homeless. I scheduled a ride along in a van that drives around looking for homeless in distress, and gives them food & supplies. They also have a hotline, so if someone is stranded, or need a ride from the hospital, it’s provided. It was a wake up call.
Gear & Method
I used a Sigma 50mm 1.4 lens, and a single off camera flash with a small softbox. I blended as much natural light as possible, I did not want a dramatic drop off in light, no did I want to start adding flashes, as I had to carry everything on foot, repeat the results, and be in and out in 20 minutes. I wanted the portraits to be uniform in technique, basically a head shot with a little touch of their environment. I aimed to draw the same expression or at least similar from each person, so that in the end it looked like a diverse demographic of people, all delivering the same message through their expression.
Wrapping Up & Installation
I took 12 portraits in all, and I went to 13 places. I didn’t even get a solid no from 13. The response from the community was so far beyond my expectations. I had a tonne of material to work with, and quickly whittled it down to my favourites and passed those onto CHF and TMC to vote for the final images.
At the last minute I suggested we take the head shots and crop them to 4×4, so we can fit more onto the house, and it worked out great.
CHF and TMC also hired artists of all walks of life to paint the house and add art to the side and front. Amazing amazing work that humbled me. Good stories, lots of laughs too.
I’d go to the house and watch it all come together, it took days to get everything ready. I tried to stay out of people’s way as I watched.
The grand opening was greeted with a little snow but there were nearly 100 people in attendance, including politicians, donators and the press. It was a pleasure watching people slow down or stop to see what all the fuss was about. Walker by’s were very receptive and we encouraged public participation with writing a wish and hanging it on a tree.
If you’d like to see it, hop on over to 222 15th Ave SW.
Marina Mellino & Louise Gallagher at the Calgary Homeless Foundation
I think, that even if (and when) digital cameras are good enough for that bitter Canadian winter (or in this case fall) I’d still prefer to shoot film at this time of year….kind feels like ice fishing.
I visit Inglewood here in Calgary a lot, and I have here a couple shots of the neighborhood on two separate dates.