Whether its Robert Frank’s images of blue-collar 1950s America or a Diane Arbus photo of a marginalized sideshow performer, photography can leave the subject’s out of the picture. The photographer often speaks for the subject (through framing, composition, lighting…) , which creates a host of unanswered questions for the viewer. We have all encountered a photograph that we wish could tell us more.
As a journalist and an artist, Don Bell knows a lot about asking questions. His series “Portraits of Wisdom” catalogues his encounters with people he meets on the street and their answers to the deceptively simple question: “What have you learned?” It’s a direct question that yields surprisingly honest answers.
Don’s photographs treat his subjects with the same sincerity. This photographic honesty is something that Susan Sontag notices in her 1977 essay collection “On Photography.” For her, it’s a trait that links back to Walt Whitman’s belief that each moment or condition ‘exhibits a beauty.’ As I spent time with the series, I realized that Don’s work engages all of these voices.
Don was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his work as a photographer and what inspires him.
Your technique depends largely on conversation and interaction with strangers. Is that journalism influencing the photography? How do you think your work as a journalist affects your photography?
My journalism background has a powerful influence on my photography – especially in this project. I’ve been interviewing people professionally for ten years, so talking to strangers on the street actually comes naturally. A smooth interview leads to a comfortable subject and therefore a natural looking portrait.
You mentioned running into your 1st Hartford subject a week or so ago; any other memorable stories from being out in the field meeting people and taking photos?
I was on the corner of Pratt and Main Street downtown when I ran into a writer named Brian. He was one of the very first subjects for this project. It’s amazing how eight months later we bump into each other while I was literally holding a flyer for the exhibition. I’m not good with names but I always remember faces and his is tough to ignore – strong, dark features with penetrating eyes. We had a quick chat and I walked away knowing why he made the final cut – powerful presence.
Most of the subjects I interviewed made an impact in someway. Peel back each layer, of each person and you’ll discover that we’re all unique in some way.
I think of Gordon Parks when I look at your work. What other photographers, artists do you look to for inspiration? Any other sources of inspiration?
I wish I had some brilliant answer for this question. The truth is that I’m inspired by ALL photography. There are a million different ways to capture life. Most pictures that I see cause some type of creative friction in my head: Why that light? Why that composition? Why that depth of field? Flushing out the answers to those questions spark creative inspiration. And way before that process ever starts, it’s the hunger to create and give birth to an image that is entirely your own. You can’t teach give-a-damn. Either you do or you don’t.
You’ve lived all over (Boston, Philly, St. Louis), what about Hartford do you enjoy?
I have a love affair with every place I’ve lived. I had a crush on Boston like a 10-year-old boy who had just discovered girls. St. Louis was love at first sight. Philly’s courage and heartbeat energizes my soul. Hartford embraced me and gave me fuel to blaze a new path. I enjoy the tight nit community of the Heartbeat. It’s like living with extended family.
What projects are you working on now?
I just launched my new website www.donbellphotography.com. Even though I had help with the design, it was a monster undertaking. At least a half dozen decisions went into every single click of the mouse. Now that it has been completed, I’m turning my attention toward commissioned work and travel related images.
And what direction do you see your work taking?
My parents once told me that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. In general, I’m not sure if parents really believe that when they speak to their children. It doesn’t matter. When they said it, I believed it. And I still do. So, I’ll keep creating art and I’ll happily go where it takes me. What direction is that? I’ll let you know after the shutter snaps.
Many thanks to Don for his answers. If you’d like to see the work yourself and meet Don, join us at the opening reception of “Portraits of Wisdom” this Thursday in the 100 Pearl Street Gallery from 5-7pm.