Eurekans, get ready for your close-up. San Diego-based documentary photographer J. Raymond Mireles will be making portraits of people at various locations in and around Eureka on June 3. He's compiling this photographic portrait as part of an ambitious, self-funded project titled Neighbors, for which he plans exhibitions of photographic portraits of Americans in all 50 states.
The first exhibition of Neighbors opened in San Diego earlier this year. There, photos were reproduced at large scale, printed on vinyl to withstand the weather and posted on a fence outside the artist's house.
The portraits in that exhibition reveal a consistent approach. Mireles positions his subjects against a neutral studio background. Sometimes he photographs them at a distance so that clothing and body language become part of the story; other times his shots are cropped so that little is visible except the subjects' faces, which are etched in detail and bathed in a gentle, even light.
Mireles' Eureka shoot is part of the first phase of a two-part process. The plan calls for the portraits to be reproduced at large scale and exhibited in the cities where subjects reside. Since photographs from the series will eventually be shown in Eureka, the project represents a collective portrait that is of and also for the community. There is also a book planned and Mireles is selling prints to fund the project.
Mireles says he is looking to photograph individuals who represent "the spirit of the community" through "the industries in which they are employed, the locations where they live or work, and/or the community groups with which they are affiliated."
The photographer comes to this project with 25 years of experience behind him. His resume includes commercial and advertising work as well as documentary projects on subjects including the Berlin art world, the North Dakota oil boom and economic disparity in the California desert.
I caught up with Mireles recently to ask him a few questions. Responses have been edited for clarity.
How did you decide on Eureka as a site?
"I've been north as far as Fort Bragg. It's always been a dream of mine to explore the northern reaches of California and I'm excited to be making that happen. I'm hoping to capture some of the subcultures that make the area unique. Hippies. Loggers. The pot-growing people up in the hills."
What equipment do you use?
"I use a medium format Hasselblad that creates crisp, high resolution images. I shoot everything digitally. I use studio lighting. I'm using a top-of-the-line lighting system. It's the same equipment that a portraitist like Annie Leibowitz would use to photograph a celebrity but I'm using it to photograph people I meet on the street."
How do you create stylistic consistency?
"I use the exact same background and lighting for each photo. When you look at the photographs in series, the background and lighting are the same; only the faces are different. So you are able to focus on the details of the person's face, see how those details reveal character and experience."
You've been printing these images at large scale, 4 by 5 feet. Why reproduce the photos larger than life?
"Scale is important. When you're confronted with faces at that scale, you can take a longer time to look. The size dictates a different relationship. You notice all kinds of things you wouldn't normally see. One time I photographed a barber and when I reviewed the image later you could tell he had just trimmed his hair for the picture. Tiny fragments of freshly cut hair were stuck to his cheek.
How do you select your subjects?
"I make every effort to reach a broad range of people. In the past I've worked with a variety of community organizations. Churches and neighborhood alliances provide entry points into communities. But my favorite go-to spot is a gas station. It's the one spot where lots of people are coming together, because of course everyone needs gasoline. You get the guy making his commute, the farmer, the Buddhist monk, the retired guy."
What photographers' work has been important to you?
"I like Irving Penn's Métiers — I think the title means the traditional trades. Penn had people from different trades come up to his studio in Paris and he photographed them there in this beautiful formal way. But Richard Avedon's late '70s and early '80s project In the American West was my most important source of inspiration."
Avedon traveled through the West and met people along the way at parades, at rodeos, on the street. He photographed them on the spot in front of studio backdrops.
"Yes. In a sense I'm updating his project, making it a more inclusive portrait that documents the actual society we live in today. I think Avedon focused on extreme elements of society and his depiction is homogenous — there are a few Native Americans, but not a single African-American in the whole book."
It's a white West.
"It's a great body of work but it could also be expanded. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, if I'm able to see farther today it's because I'm standing on the shoulders of giants."
J. Raymond Mireles will be photographing people in public places in and around Eureka on Friday, June 3. You can check out the artist's website www.jraymondm.com for more information on the project and its fundraising, and you can watch a short video about the Neighbors project on Vimeo.com.