It starts with anxiety and ends in exhausted exultation. While this can be said of many things—an essay, sex, a World Cup Final (at least for one side)—I'm referring here to Chronogram's pop-up portrait shoots (PUPS for short). In case you're unfamiliar with our PUPS project, for the past year we've been traveling from town to town and photographing the residents of our local communities. It's proven to be a quite popular feature, and one we'll be continuing this year as well. All praise to photographer David McIntyre for suggesting this capital idea.
But to my original point, let me rephrase. The PUPS don't start with jangled nerves—that comes later. Producing a community portrait shoot starts with the calm self-assurance bred by having done this before. (Success over time = confidence.) We know how to do this, we have a system for doing this, and it works.
Here's the system in a nutshell: A lot of emails, mostly from me, with a link to a Doodle poll wherein folks can sign up for a time slot at the shoot. (If I gummed up your inbox with my entreaties to come and get your photo taken, please forgive me. It's easier than going door to door like a vacuum cleaner salesman.) If it's a place like Kingston, where I live and work, no problem. A hundred emails go out to folks already known to me and they mostly show up. (One of the great joys of the PUPS project has been to witness the pride people take in representing their communities.)
If it's a place like Great Barrington (featured this month), where I don't know a great many people, it's a little trickier. I start by asking the few residents I do know for their help, to guide me through town like Virgil led Dante. To which one correspondent replied, "Am I to take it that Great Barrington is standing in for hell in this analogy?" (While the reference to The Inferno achieved the desired level of pretension—middlebrow aspiring to upper middlebrow—it left a lot to be desired vis-à-vis the association with the inhabitants of the nine circles of eternal damnation.)
And I start researching the community's businesses and nonprofits and cultural institutions and scouring the internet for the email addresses of the folks behind them. Or I track people down on social media and message them there. Something to the effect of: Hi! You barely know me or perhaps don't know me at all but I'm a swell guy who runs this magazine called Chronogram and we're coming to your town! Wouldn't you like to drag yourself out in a snowstorm and get your picture taken? It won't hurt, I promise. Please heed this call. You—and others like you, feel free to share this invitation with others—are crucial to our success!
A hundred emails and a week later is when the anxiety sets in. The photo shoot is a week away. Some people have signed up, but not as many as I had hoped, and I start to worry. Perhaps the wording of my emails wasn't persuasive. Maybe I didn't reach out to enough people or the right people, or chose a date that conflicts with the observance of a local tradition unknown to me. It's a nerve-wracking limbo of a time, akin to the pre-party jitters. Is anyone going to show up for the party I'm throwing for Great Barrington?
Then the day of the shoot arrives. It's [expletive deleted] snowing. From the third-floor window of the Carrie Chen Gallery on Main Street, Great Barrington looks as cute in the snow as a kid in a Norman Rockwell painting. There are lots of folks signed up, but will they come out in a storm? As I stand by the window and fret, David sets up his camera and Margot Isaacs, our indefatigable marketing and events manager, puts out the model releases and pens and clipboards.
And then people start pouring in. Great Barrington is in the house. It's artists and chefs and dispensary owners and bakers and psychologists and actors and nonprofit directors and moms and dads and children and Chihuahuas. Just like that. Everybody shows up for their town. I talk with as many people as I can. By the end of the shoot, I'm exultant and exhausted.
As we're packing up, Margot tells me I shouldn't worry so much.