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Capturing a Community
Finding the Creative Challenge in Environmental Portraits


Karli Gilbertson—opera singer, mother
Karli Gilbertson—opera singer, mother
Caryn B. Davis


Jess Maghan—author, professor, former director of training, NYPD
Jess Maghan—author, professor, former director of training, NYPD
Caryn B. Davis


Claude Martin—artist, painting restorer, creator of designs on tiles
Claude Martin—artist, painting restorer, creator of designs on tiles
Caryn B. Davis


Therese Desjardin—mosaic artist, painter, creative innovator
Therese Desjardin—mosaic artist, painter, creative innovator
Caryn B. Davis


Kathryne Wright—creative explorer, jewelry designer, artist, sometimes a teacher, always a student
Kathryne Wright—creative explorer, jewelry designer, artist, sometimes a teacher, always a student
Caryn B. Davis



As a photographer, I like to study different cultures and communities in an attempt to understand the world around me.

So when I moved to Chester, Connecticut, after living in New York City and traveling to over 35 countries, I realized what a special place Chester is. I became intrigued by how this 18th- and 19th-century village of 3,500 has managed to retain its sense of community and Old World values, and wondered why so many interesting people from an array of backgrounds would gravitate here and make it their home.

Earlier in my photographic career, I worked on a self-assigned photo essay about the New Haven Gothic scene, “American Gothic.” Once a month for one year, I would set up my strobe lights and a black backdrop at a club called Gotham Citi, and create B&W fine art portraits of the club’s patrons. I interviewed all my subjects because I felt their voices were integral to the images.

This past November, with an exhibition pending at the Alexey von Schlippe Gallery in Groton, Connecticut, I decided to start a photo essay that would involve taking portraits of people in their environment, rather than in a more controlled studio setting. I hadn’t done many environmental portraits prior to this, and thought it would be the technical and creative challenge I sought. I decided Chester would be my next subject.

The Project Unfolds

I began creating environmental portraits of Chester residents and interviewing them about their lives in April of 2005. It was quite a challenge at first—and continues to be so­­—because each environment I enter is completely different. There are many factors I have to consider to develop a strong portrait.

First, I have to find a way to tie the subject to his or her environment. With an artist surrounded by her paintings, a bicycle maker in his shop, or a musician at her piano, it’s easy to find something graphic to tie them to. But when the subject is an actress in her living room without a stage, it’s more difficult to make the photograph visually interesting.

Second, is lighting the scene. I use a combination of strobe, flash, and natural light, depending on the situation. My goal is always to make the lighting appear as natural as possible, so I don’t do anything too fancy. I want the photograph to be compelling because of the subject, not because of the lighting.

The first time I photographed Karli, an opera singer (below, left), for example, I used a flash, but kept getting too much shadow behind her and reflections off the piano. The next time I photographed her, I brought a strobe light and opened all the window shades. This resulted in a more natural looking image—no harsh shadows or unwanted reflections.

Third, I try to show the viewer who my subjects are, through their environments, expressions, and by what they reveal about themselves. So while each image needs to be visually compelling, it also has to have an emotional component and be technically sound. I don’t always achieve these goals the first time, so I have to go back and re-shoot.

Of the approximately 80 potential subjects I want to photograph, I have completed 37 thus far. As I go along, people inevitably tell me about someone else they think would make a good candidate for this project. I try to do one portrait a week and usually spend an hour or two with each person photographing and interviewing.

After my show in November at the Alexey von Schlippe Gallery, I decided to make this essay into a book, Chester Stories. I will donate all the interview transcripts and a copy of each photograph to the Chester Historical Society when the project is completed.

I envision the book with a portrait next to a mini essay for each individual, written in his or her own words, and a general essay about the town itself in the beginning pages. I don’t know yet if I will write it myself or engage the services of a writer. At any rate, I expect to be working on this project between everything else for the next two years.

Now, almost a year and a half into the project, capturing Chester remains a rewarding creative and technical challenge.


   







PTN Dailes HERE