Charming portraits of small-town America show the importance of 'community'
Over 2,000 years ago, one of humanity's most profound thinkers, Aristotle, stated that the whole of our parts is greater than the sum. Collectively, the bits and pieces of all our differences can, theoretically, combine to reveal a better, more complex, "us".
Of course, it isn't easy to see this today when so much divide exists in the world, but the sentiment inspired a new series by British photographer Richard Beaven.
Hailing originally from Exeter, England, he has made the small Hudson Valley town of Ghent, New York his full-time adopted home since 2011. Inspired by his town's bicentennial in 2018, he spent the 200th anniversary year photographing the local community, crisscrossing back and forth over the 149 miles that comprise the area. The individuals he photographed range in age from infant to elderly; and have lived or worked in Ghent from just five days to over ninety years.
More than 80% of the people Richard met with were "strangers" to him at the beginning of the 'All of Us' project. By the end, he had created a narrative of a small, rural town through the resulting 276 portraits, and commemorated a specific time and place in American history. Sixty of these portraits will be published in All of Us: Portraits of an American Bicentennial by Daylight Books this month.
Through the making of this work, Richard came to know his community on a more profound level enabling him to connect its residents from all walks of life with each other. "Never before have we so needed to be reminded of 'community'; of that which unites us, not divides us," writes creative director Kira Pollack in her foreword.
Richard's process itself reflects both his commitment to and respect for the community where he lives and works. All the images were shot analogue with film, natural light, and no digital manipulation or studio tricks. Pollack notes, "That choice lent itself to a more focused session between photographer and subject, and the film captured a precision that lends itself to master prints that act as a true catalogue for the project."
Professor and writer Tom Lewis contributed an essay for the book's afterword, and he also recognises the intersectionality of people and place and the way each connect to and inform the other. "These men, women, and children appear as the latest generation of those who have come before, those who have lived on the land and with it," he writes.
Lewis also points out Richard's ability to reveal emotional tethers to land and how his composition elevates ordinary moments and gestures and expressions. "Some seem at peace with the land, others perhaps not. A young woman stands in a harvested field, her shadow lengthening out across the corn stubble. Another holds her bass clarinet against a background of mullein, wildflowers, and forest. A widow lovingly cradles a framed photograph of her husband as he stands beside a calf."
Richard confirms one of his goals is for the images to "build a sense of place" and chronicle the story of a town with a 200-year history to be told through those who collectively call it home. "My long-term approach is to use my photography to create a wide-ranging survey of our time that examines cultural and socio-political themes. My goal is to contribute meaningfully to the broader archive during this challenging, divisive, and transformative time in American history."
All of Us: Portraits of an American Bicentennial by Richard Beaven is published by Daylight Books.