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Economy Portraits – Photography Project Explores the Affects of the Economy on Everyday People

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“I lost my house, my car, and my job.”

Economy Portraits is a project I started for an Artist In Residence stay at the Huntington Beach Art Center from March 1 through April 9, 2011. I take portraits of anyone who comes into HBAC and ask them the question how has the collapse of the economy affected your life?

“I’m 17. My dad couldn’t make enough money to keep my mother married to him. She left. I now live with my dad, older sister, and 3 roommates. I’ve had a second job for the past 6 months and have been finishing my senior year of high school. I’m still coping.”

I was interviewed by the Huntington Beach Independent newspaper, and the writer asked a question that has come up many times. “What inspired you to do this project?” The answer is annoyance. I am highly annoyed with the news about the American economy. One night I hear that the recession is over and jobs are coming back. The next night, there is a report that 4,000 workers have been laid off from a large corporation. I thought it would be interesting to find out from everyday people exactly what is going on.

“All of my family moved out-of-state to enjoy a better quality of living, I remained in my hometown, living on my own or with roommates. I work self-employed as a hair stylist. The economy has made my career a challenge because getting your hair done is a luxury for most people. Every day I have to look farther and work harder to find new clients. I am grateful to be self-employed and love my job very much. I value every moment I have with a new client. I depend on them to survive. I look at my job as a way of touching others to make them feel better and forget about the stresses going on in their life, and it makes every day a reward.”

The project evolves in two phases. As I take the portraits, they hang from the ceiling of the gallery in rows, at eye level. Each portrait has the answer to the question written in the person’s own handwriting.

Economy Portraits hanging from the ceiling of the Huntington Beach Art Center

The portraits are photographed on three different colored backgrounds, red, white, and black. The purpose is to construct an American flag on the wall. I chose to use black instead of blue as a metaphor for our dark economic times. When the portraits fill the middle of the gallery, they are replaced by newly printed images. The first ones take their place on the wall.

The American flag being built on the gallery wall.

The completed flag measures 11 feet x 18 1/2 feet long.

Early on during the reception. Participants are looking for their portraits.

I photographed 245 people during the six-week residency. I thought the wall was big enough to use all the portraits, but it turns out a wall looks a lot larger when you see it in an empty room. I used less than half of the portraits to make a flag that measures 11 feet high by 18 1/2 feet long. I hope to take Economy Portraits to a museum that has a space that will accommodate a full flag with all 50 stars and 13 stripes.

To view a two minute video of the making of the portraits and flag, click here to view on YouTube.

A book of this project is available on Amazon, or through my website.

To read an article about Economy Portraits in the Huntington Beach Independent newspaper, click here.

Afterword: On April 18, I gave a short speech to the Huntington Beach City Council. As in all cities of California, a serious budget crisis puts the Huntington Beach Art Center at risk of being closed down. Click here to read the speech.

Economy Portraits was awarded “Best Art Show of 2011” by OC Weekly. See the article by clicking here.

Update: Economy Portraits is on exhibit at Orange County Center of Contemporary Art (OCCCA) from August 5 – 18, 2012 in an exhibit titled The Spirit of Democracy. Opening reception is August 4th from 6 – 10 p.m. Click here to see a short video of the opening reception on YouTube.

Next exhibit of Economy Portraits will be a smaller version of the flag in an exhibit titled “Capital Crime$” at BC Space in Laguna Beach. The show runs from October 6 – November 30, 2012.

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