The New Americans – Photo Portraits

How do you capture a person’s essence in just a few key moments? At best, it’s a difficult assignment, but two photographers, Zach Domes and Elle Wildhagen, were determined to try. Last year they traveled America to create photo portraits of everyday Americans.

Zach Domes and Elle Wildhagen, from the Adobe Create Magazine site

They weren’t looking to make social commentary or show people struggling with life’s misfortunes. Rather, hoping for inspiration and uplift, they searched for Americans who had found a way to steer their lives in a positive direction. It was their stories Zach and Elle wanted to tell.

A Portrait of Today’s Americans

Elle, from the 100cameras.org site:

With all the bad news we see on a daily basis, Zach and I began wondering what a portrait of America actually looks like today. We wanted the good news to be just as public as the bad. It was partly an investigation to find the good, hoping it was just as prevalent, as well as a chance to travel the country for 2 months, exploring and celebrating the landscape.

The results, 20 photo essays with audio interviews, were featured in Adobe Create Magazine as The New Americans. Here’s one:

Diana, Navigating Risks

Or click here for Diana’s video.

Zach comments:

Diana said that one of the most important things that rock climbing has taught her is how to fail. She has learned how to take on challenges and when to quit them. But, by quitting them she isn’t giving up. Every climb will teach you what you can and cannot do. Climbing shows you what you’re made of and what you have to learn. Even more importantly, though, learning how to take risks while climbing has taught her how to take risks in life too.

Following Robert Frank’s Photo Journey

Zach and Elle’s photo and audio portraits were inspired by a similar journey taken 60 years ago by renown photographer Robert Frank. A Swiss immigrant, Frank traversed the country with his outsider’s eye, capturing America’s contradictions and re-defining documentary photography with his acclaimed photo portraits, The Americans.

Zach and Elle, from their site:

Dozens of our friends connected us to people they were inspired by. We left our home in San Francisco to embark on a 6-week road trip around the United States to meet these inspiring Americans in person. Our goal was to do what media often doesn’t do: To share stories that are simple, yet inspiring. And to tell them in an honest way.”

Zai, Fabricating Her Art

Or click here for Zai’s video.

From Zai’s site:

Elektra Steel produces bold, mosaic wall hangings. The company is run by designer and metalworker Zai Divecha, a Bay Area native and Yale graduate who learned to weld at age 14. Her specialty is TIG welding, a type of arc welding that’s known for its precision, control, and flexibility.

From Zai’s site:

“Glitch”    Materials: stainless steel, hot-rolled mild steel, steel flatbar, plywood  48″x 24″

A Few Words About Process

Elle, from the Adobe Create site:

We arrived not knowing any of these people, and then we’d spend two days with them in their home, with their families—so it was very immersive in that way. We tried not to have any strict roles, so we could stay as open as possible to the story and make them feel as comfortable as possible.

Zach, from the 100 cameras site:

Sharing any work you create means that you have to be vulnerable. You are sharing a part of yourself, a part of your soul. Even though we tried to share people’s stories in pure form, who we are as artists surrounds the work itself…

Lillian, From Lawyer to Rancher

Or click here for Lillian’s video.

Zach comments on Lillian’s story:

Max, known as the last original cowboy by most of the locals, introduced Lillian to most of Pony’s longtime residents. We had a chance to meet some of their friends at the only bar in town that night. After hanging out with everyone inside it was easy to see why Lillian had always wanted to move here.

Robert Frank, Capturing America in the 1950s

In his seminal work, The Americans, Robert Frank uncovered a darker, more alienated vision of America.

“Canal Street – New Orleans” by Robert Frank

Many of his portraits evoke the space that separated us, one from the other.

“Chattanooga, Tennessee” by Robert Frank

“Charleston, South Carolina” by Robert Frank

Perhaps his most famous portrait also graces the cover of The Americans. It captured a vision of the segregated South, encapsulated in the windows of a New Orleans trolley.

“Trolley – New Orleans” by Robert Frank

Telling Stories

Frank shot dozens of images for each one that made it into his book. The photographs he chose evoke a vanished dream, forlorn hope or whispered secret that belied the rosy picture of life in America after WWII. In every case, Frank let the picture tell the story.

Zach and Elle’s work doesn’t rise to that level of complexity. Still, their stories give us a glimpse of people searching for something better – a more meaningful way to spend their days.

Frank’s imagery is lyrical but stark – exploring the underbelly of a different era in America. Zach and Elle paint romantic, optimistic portraits – one person finds their challenge in climbing, another in art, another leaves a lucrative but deadening existence for the natural beauty and warmth of community in rural Montana.

The last video I’d like to share features a couple who’ve discovered an intimacy with nature and each other. They’ve broadened their horizons by living in a very small space. It’s one of life’s contradictions – that by leaving the comfort and security of the familiar, we may find romance, adventure and a sense of fulfillment by traversing the unknown.

Greg and Kathleen’s Small Pleasures

I’ll let Zach introduce their photo portrait of Greg and Kathleen.

Zach:

What began as a simple idea turned into a reality when they moved out of their apartment and into the newly bought camper RV. The smallness was actually a joy for them. Having also lived in a tiny home for a year I can definitely say that there is something about the struggle of living in a tiny space that makes life more interesting and delightful.

Or click here for Greg and Kathleen’s video.

Kathleen has a blog that explores the living-in-a-van lifestyle. On her site, I found this enticing photo essay, reminding me of a delicious summer long ago spent traveling across America.

After watching these portraits of new Americans, I feel like I’ve met some people I’d like to know better. As for Zach and Elle, they plan to embark on another New Americans photo journey this December.

What is your take on the videos? Are these life-changing journeys only possible for the young or young at heart? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

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About Dan Bailes

As a writer and storyteller I explore the creative process and how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. For my blog, The Vision Thing, I write on creativity, innovation and vision – with a focus on pathfinders and the inspirational moment. I also consult and write for clients, play drums in a blues band, practice yoga and enjoy photography.
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