Fotos para los muertos

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We offered free Day of the Dead portraits last year as an experiment. Our downtown location was several months from becoming a fully realized studio, which meant that our options for backdrops and lighting were limited. We also weren’t sure what to expect in answer to our advertisement: “Come as you are or dressed for the holiday, but bring a belonging or photograph of a departed loved one to take part.” In recent years the holiday has increased in popularity, but with some tension in tow. Gorilla and ghoul costumes had appeared in Missoula’s Day of the Dead parade, for instance. It was clear that something had been altered in translation, and the familial skeletons rose alongside fearful skulls left over from Halloween, situating Missoula’s celebration between dress-up that expresses a kinship with the dead, and dress-up that seems centered on the self and its disguise or abandonment. How comfortably do these motives sit together–within the same greasepaint even? We decided to photograph that discord if that’s what our sitters brought to the studio. We lit candles, opened our sandwich board, and hoped.

We were fascinated and fairly humbled by the response.

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Ashby Kinch, draped in the Texas flag that flew over the state capitol at Austin in commemoration of his father.

Sitters came as families. They indeed brought pictures to be photographed with and they spoke to us a little about the person they were honoring. We were bowled over when the Kinch family arrived with an armful of possessions touched by the lives of departed family members.

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It wasn’t just the number of things, or that they were so unique. What touched a nerve of this inchoate project was that they had brought things one could wear. We asked Amy Kinch to wear her father’s tie. Ashby agreed to don the uniform coat he brought and to wrap the state flag of Texas around his shoulders. The heart of this project had just revealed itself along the way. Dressing-up is an aspect of human play that enthralls us as photographers. And to dress in the belongings of the dead is something quite different than to stand with a picture, it seems to us. Violating a taboo is not our aim. We’re more interested in attesting kinship. We don’t deny, however, a power to these belongings. Ashby observed at the end of the session that neither of us had asked him to wear his father’s hat. “I’m not sure that I would have,” he added.

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Hollie is made up as a decorated skull.

It’s exciting to be hosting the event again this year. We are eager to capture the makeup and ensembles sitters have created, and we look forward to learning about the belongings they bring, in facilitating this moment of connection. We’ll have a special interest in things they can wear.

We’ll end this post with one of last year’s photographs that meant the most to us. When this wonderfully attired gentleman shared with us a photograph of his son, he was willing to hold the picture to his chest, effectively wearing it over his heart. We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to create with our visitors images that witness a sense of belonging.

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Kirby shares a photo of his son.

Nov. 1, 12-4 pm | Nov. 2, 3:30-5:30

Free portraits in honor of Day of the Dead. Bring a belonging or photograph of a departed loved one to take part. Registration is not required, but a message or phone call to tell us you’re coming will help us to plan.

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