If you’re walking around Market Street in Ellenville this summer, you’ll likely stumble upon a storefront window covered in portraits. The people featured in the photos are from all different walks of life, smiling against a plain white background. The artist behind these portraits of Ellenville residents is Rosendale-based photographer Charles Purvis.
Earlier in his career, Purvis worked as a commercial photographer in New York City, but lately he has focused his practice on large-format, abstract, fine art photography at his studio in Rosendale. Outside of his typical subject matter, Purvis has been borrowing a studio in Ellenville to shoot photographs of anyone that walks in as a part of a new project called Portrait Ellenville. After taking their picture, Purvis prints one copy of the portrait out for the window and another for the subject to take home for free.
“[Charles’s] goal in these photo sessions is to find what he calls the moment of joy and to capture that, and he's incredibly successful at it,” says Paul Villinski, who works as an artist in Ellenville and helped organize the project. Purvis’s use of plain lighting and a white background is intentionally stark, hoping to highlight a moment of joy without any distractions.
“My connection to the people is to bring out that experience of joy within them and capture that in an image,” he says of his goal now. That direction emerged naturally as Purvis undertook the project. “When I started it, I really didn't know what it was and what it was supposed to be,” he says of the project. “My interest was really to kind of follow this thread of curiosity.”
Purvis and Villinski noticed this commonality of joy in every portrait while standing outside the studio one night looking at all of the photos taped to the window. Not only do they all share joy, but when observed as a collective, the differences between the people in the photos seems to fade away.
“What fell away are all these differences that we’re always reminded of in the press, like race, economics, privilege, that are real and we're not unaware of them,” Purvis shares, “Yet, what was present in the images was something that was uniting us, that's clearly within each of us as human beings. And that is this spark of life, this joy, and this light in our eyes.”
Purvis's method for eliciting joy comes differently with each person. “Each connection is going to have a different opening or entrance way,” Purvis shares. “For some, it's about connecting with them empathically so that they can relax, and for some, it can be playful.”
The sense of community helps people open up when having their picture taken. “When people come in there, they may be waiting for a print or they may be sitting around and hanging out,” says Purvis, “People will congregate there for a while and they will begin to encourage each other.” He also found that by giving away the portrait for free, people are compelled to give back. Along with Villinksi and Purvis’s initial funding for the project, they’ve been able to keep it going on donations.
This photography project is part of a bigger project going on in the village called the Coalition of Forward-Facing Ellenville, a new nonprofit designed to integrate new residents, enliven the existing community, and support social-service partnerships. A committee of this new nonprofit is the Ellenville Arts Collective, currently composed of four community members whose goal is to connect and support artists in the area.
“We are looking for ways to engage the creative community in Ellenville and the surrounding areas with a lot of emphasis right now on community building,” Villinski says. The Ellenville Arts Collective is currently comprised of Poppy Cannon, Kathleen Anderson, Evan Trent and Paul Villinski. They have been setting up monthly meetings for artists in the area to network. While currently purely social, they have plans to facilitate more structured discussions and critiques for artists to grow and connect.
The next artist meetup for Ellenville Arts Collective will likely be in September and the next portrait day for Portrait Ellenville is July 8 from 1pm-6pm at 6 Market Street in Ellenville.