Sunday, September 20, 2015

Three Beautiful Things 09/19/15: Listening on the Green Line, The Kindness of Rick Chapman, Shooting Portraits

1.  The two African-American women in their twenties who sat behind me on the Green Line train going into D. C. had just finished a workshop related to the work they were doing with disadvantaged kids.  They were steamed. I closed my copy of Great Expectations and listened. They'd found their workshop leader well-intentioned, but condescending, self-congratulatory, insulting in her/his missionary zeal, and crippled by understanding and talking about the disadvantaged in terms of stereotypes ("they don't know how to behave"), not experience. Then they talked about white interviewers they'd experienced and white bosses they'd had who complimented them for being "articulate", for "speaking well for themselves". The train pulled up to the Gallery Place/Chinatown stop.  The two women got off the train and disappeared.  I went to the National Portrait Gallery.

2.  I arrived at the National Portrait Gallery early and entered the area where exhibition, "Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze" is showing. Photographer Rick Chapman was scheduled to talk about his portraits in this exhibition in about an hour, but it turned out he was there early and I watched him reach out to a couple of brothers around nine or ten years old. He answered their questions seriously, kindly, free of condescension, and took them over to his Jeff Gordon portrait and explained the design concept he had in mind when he took this portrait without a race car in sight and with much of the picture dominated by the building where Gordon's business as a race car driver is headquartered.

Rick Chapman's kind and generous manner with these boys deeply impressed me. On the rare occasion that I am in the company of an accomplished artist -- photographer, poet, writer, scholar -- I love it when the artist gives her/his full attention to the least accomplished persons in their company. At LCC, I witnessed the writers Dan O'Brien and Louise Steinman and the poets Lucille Clifton and Kay Ryan be generous in the same way with the students who were invited to a luncheon with each of them. All four of them conversed easily, listened intently, answered questions gracefully and gratefully. They made a lasting and most positive impression on me in the way they interacted with the earnest, unpolished, inquisitive students who had been invited to lunch with them.

So did Rich Chapman's conversation with these boys.

3. Rick Chapman is not a sports fan, so when he was commissioned by ESPN and ESPY to photograph forty portraits of a variety of celebrity athletes, his purpose was to develop a connection with each athlete as a person and to try to portray more intimate aspects of each one's personality or character that we might not see on television or in celebrity magazines. He began his talk telling us about the portrait he shot of Serena Williams, a pensive, black and white close-up, explained how the picture came about and the challenges he faced shooting Serena at a country club with no apparent suitable context within which to get his shot, and how he ended up solving that problem. Then he talked in the same way about his portrait of Venus Williams, taken at her home.  

I thought about the portraits I took of my WR 115 students from 2012-14 and how, if I succeeded at creating a picture that revealed the student's deeper character and if there were any successful design elements in the shots, it happened in no more than ten minutes of shooting; Rick Chapman, on the other hand, spent as many as four hours with each of the forty athletes he portrayed, earning as much trust as possible, talking casually with them, urging them to let him portray them in ways not done before.

Ten of Rick Chapman's forty ESPY portraits are on display in the exhibition, "Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze".

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