Ralph Gardner Jr: Portrait Of A Town

Dec 15, 2018

Here’s a holiday party throwing tip: if you want to make sure a desired person shows up make him or her your guest of honor. And if you really want to guarantee an impressive turnout, select, say, two or three hundred of your favorite friends and make all of them the guests of honor.

That wasn’t the only or even the main reason the Omi International Arts Center in Ghent, NY had a full parking lot last Saturday night. But the exhibition that everybody was coming to see, and perhaps a few even to be seen, pretty much guaranteed a good head count.

Called “All of Us: Portraits Of The Ghent Bicentennial,” and shot by photographer and Ghent resident Richard Beaven, it was devoted to images of 275 of the town’s residents. Quite a few of the photographer’s subjects showed up.

“Over eighty percent of the people I didn’t know,” Richard, a professional photographer whose work has appeared frequently in the Wall Street Journal, told me as we toured the show the afternoon before it opened. “Which is kind of the point.”

The subjects included lifelong residents, weekenders and everything in between. The only biographical information provided were their names and how long they’d resided in the town. “How did I decide who’s in it?” Richard asked rhetorically.

Actually, it wasn’t a rhetorical question. He was responding to one about why he’d failed to include my mug, even though I didn’t take the omission personally.

“There’s no science to it,” he added. “I hope this feels like a good representation of the town. We live in our own bubbles. I wanted to explore the other bubbles.”

Richard told me that he was informed by road commissioner Ben Perry – Ben made the cut, standing outside the town garage and posed before the piles of salt that will find their way onto local roadways this winter – that there are 149 miles of roads in Ghent.

“I’ve been down 147 of them,” the photographer said.

Richard performed a somewhat similar exercise prior to the last Presidential election when he took portraits of Trump voters. Not just any Trump voter but those passionate enough about their candidate that they created their own yard signs.

One of them, of a voter named “Bear” Brandow, his sign large enough that it covered the side of a building in Gloversville, NY -- that moody image somehow managing to capture the hope and anger of many who voted for the real estate and reality TV mogul -- found its way into a show at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Many of the subjects in Richard’s current show ostensibly have nothing in common except for the coincidence that they happen to reside in the same bucolic upstate New York town. The project materialized after he was approached by Patti Matheney, a member of the town board, who wondered whether he had any photographs they could post on the Town of Ghent website to honor the bicentennial.

Individually, each image holds its own as a work of art. Richard shot all of them using an old Pentax medium format film camera. They’re colorful and the backgrounds are gently blurred, drawing the viewer’s eye towards the person at the photograph’s center.

But there’s also something more profound going on. Richard said his goal was to create the contemporary equivalent of a 19th or 20th century “box of prints in the basement,” that will serve as a tactile historical document when people examine them fifty or a hundred years from now.

Ironically, in the age of digital photography and the cellphone, when capturing fleeting moments has become effortless, they’ve also become somewhat devalued. Most of them never get printed. If they qualify as artifacts, they’re only of the most haphazard kind.

Yet what Richard has managed to accomplish in “All Of Us” is to show that something deeper, something that is often not readily visible and even ignored, unites us. And it’s something larger than the simple fact that all of the people portrayed in this show – children and the elderly, white and black, farmers and supermarket employees, hunters, artists, writers and bank tellers – share a common, uplifting humanity.

That’s why I suggest you see the show which runs through January 3rd. It makes no difference whether you live in the town of Ghent or not.

What it brought to mind was a famous 1976 issue of Rolling Stone magazine shot by Richard Avedon. That was composed of 73 black and white portraits of some of the most notable people in America at the time. It coincided with another bicentennial, that of the United States, and that summer’s political conventions.

Among the underembellished portraits, pores and all, were those of Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Nelson Rockefeller, Katherine Graham, Henry Kissinger, Rose Mary Woods and Caesar Chavez.

What riveted the viewer then was that sense that you were somehow seeing behind the armor that all of us wear as we wander through life, the masks of the famous and powerful the most opaque of all.

This show is similarly revelatory. Richard Beaven, who used to be an advertising executive – “advertising is about understanding human behavior so you can change it,” he told me – shot and sometimes reshot the same subjects.

“Most of these were not spontaneous,” he said. “They knew I was coming to take a photograph. They could decide what they were going to wear.”

What all of them have in common is the luster of psychological truth. And Richard treats every subject with dignity and respect.

“We’re in very divided times,” the photographer said. “It made me realize we actually have more in common than divides us.”

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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