By Jan Worth-Nelson
Pulitzer Prize winner Dan White, 60, has spent decades photographing Kansas City jazz musicians, cowboys, the Lost Boys of Sudan, Zapotec women of Oaxaca, and aboriginal peoples of Australia.
And now he’s come back to Flint, where he grew up in a well-known extended Vehicle City family, to fall in love again with the faces and stories of his hometown. He says he hopes his work — to be featured in the Capitol Theater at its opening in September — will make a contribution to the now-troubled city that he says nurtured him well.
In a warm gravelly voice suggesting he’s been around, White said the water crisis was the impetus for his return.
“I had to do something for the folks here, for my hometown,” he said, adding he hopes his photos will help bring the community together. He also hopes the project — 50 to 60 full color, four-foot-by-six-foot portraits of Flint people — will be shown elsewhere, helping spread what he sees as testimony to the resilience and dignity of Flint residents to the rest of the world.
White’s work has appeared in Flint once before — a 2009 solo show of 50 of his portraits of Kansas City jazz musicians at the Flint Institute of Arts.
Because of family connections, the longtime Kansas City resident said he comes back to Flint several times a year. During a September visit last year he began to shape plans for his project, called “Flint Folks: A Tribute” and has been back for extended working visits several times since. So far he’s photographed about 35 people, a little more than halfway there. He’s here this summer, expecting to put in six more weeks in mid-July through August.
Then he’ll go home to make the prints on a big Epson printer in his Kansas City studio and prepare for the September opening.
His subjects so far include Lottie Reid of the Golden Leaf Club, Blue Hawaiians front man Joel Bye, spoken word artist Mama Sol, Tapology duo Cherisse and Ali Bradley, U.S. Congressman Dan Kildee, University of Michigan Regent emerita Libby Maynard, Flint sports hero Norm Bryant, artist Ryan Gregory, MaMang restauranteur Tony Vu, water activist Tony Palladeno and many more.
He says he’s been blown away by Flint’s panoply of people and stories.
“I’ll tell you what, that’s been one of the most fun things about being here — to learn about your city that you grew up in, anew. I’m seeing things I never knew were here, meeting people I never knew — it’s really cool.”
In the narrative accompanying the online account of the project so far, White recalls “sitting on my dad’s shoulders to see President John F. Kennedy ride down the street in an open convertible.
“I made a mental picture of that moment,” he writes, “recalling the vibrancy and optimism of not only the President, but also of that energetic and seemingly boundless Midwestern city.”
“Decades later,” he writes, “my hometown has declined in stature, health, and wealth, while being dragged into the front pages of newspapers and websites around the country.
Bu he said he sees a Flint not readily visible from the headlines, and he believes his photographs can make a difference.
“All my visual journeys return to my favorite subject matter,” he said, “individual people who have personal stories to tell.”
He described his Flint subjects, many of whom have been or have become friends, as “some of the finest people I have come to know…proud, hard-working, humble and giving.” He said found his subjects by starting with a few people he knew, and then simply asking “who do you think would be a good candidate for this project?” And then he just asked people he saw on the street, and plans to do more of that when he returns for his last rounds of photo shoots in August.
The son of late Flint attorney Charlie White, he is the brother of filmmaker Laurie White, now of Ann Arbor. His long-distance girlfriend is Melissa Stanzler, now of Los Angeles, the daughter of the late Jack and Phoebe Stanzler, both longtime physicians and residents of the College Cultural neighborhood. After the Stanzlers divorced, Laurie White became Jack Stanzler’s second wife, so the two families are intricately entwined.
“You could say I’m dating my step-niece,” he said with a chuckle.
White’s Flint ancestry itself carries the stamp of iconic Americana. White’s grandfather’s birth name was Chimovitz, and when he and his brothers immigrated to the U.S. in the early 20th century from Lithuania, like many other immigrants eager to be accepted, the grandfather changed his name to “White.” The other five brothers didn’t, but ended up in the Southeast Michigan area, too, meaning the clan of Chimovitzes were a big part of White’s childhood.
“I’m a Chimovitz,” he states with a frank smile.
In Flint, White’s grandfather started out as a haberdasher on Leith Street and had dreamed of a shop in downtown Flint, White said. But he lost his business during the Depression, and as White described it, “never quite recovered.” White’s father was born and raised in Flint and, as a longtime local attorney, served on the Hurley Hospital board for many years.
White, like his father a Northern High School graduate, said he had been turned on to photography as a boy by his cousin, Jeff Chimovitz, now a Grand Blanc attorney. Chimovitz had a darkroom and let him experiment and learn.
White started out as a high school student at the Flint Journal, where he learned from the late photojournalist Barry Edmonds. He apprenticed at a series of other newspapers, eventually getting a photojournalism degree from the University of Missouri. He went to Kansas City to work at The Kansas City Star. It was there he was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team, which won for its coverage of the 1981 Hyatt Hotel skywalk collapse that killed 114. Now he is a full-time commercial and portrait photographer, happy in Kansas City but also from time to time roaming the country and the globe.
He uses a Canon 5D, digital 50-megapixel big file camera and a Leica medium format model.
He has spent decades since his cousin’s Flint darkroom perfecting his craft, adapting as the technology changed and digital methods emerged.
“The print has always been really, really important to me as a photographer and craftsman,” he said. “I spent many years in the darkroom, years and years, and then, as digital came along, I was a very early adapter, trying to see if I could get prints that looked anything as good as a silver print out of a darkroom. The inks got better and better, the media got better and better. And now it’s quite, quite good. It’s a little different, but the inks and the paper now are good stuff.”
“I’m very much a guy who’s interested in process,” he said. “The darkroom was always important to me. Even when I worked in newspapers, we had people who would develop your film, but I always did it myself — I did my own chemistry, I wanted that consistent result. I liked that part of it.”
Now he uses PhotoShop as “a digital darkroom.” He said he was concerned the parts he liked about the darkroom would be lost when digital came along, but he’s learned he can create “a beautiful file that you can make a print of that can go 44 x 60.”
In addition to the uses of the “darkroom” — actual or digital — White also is in love with light. He uses it in almost every shot. Whether it’s the flare of bluesman Joel Bye’s cigarette lighter or the bright pattern of window shadows on the floor behind Tapology’s Charisse and Ali Bradley, the play of light — the photographer’s metier, after all — is passionate and gorgeous.
Inevitably, a major part of his effort since September has included fundraising for the Flint project, “begging, borrowing and cobbling together,” he said. Initial contributions from UM – Flint and the Hagerman Foundation have materialized so far, and the Kickstarter campaign aims to raise $12,000 by July 18.
Funds will cover printing and design costs, travel, support for a studio assistant, and hanging the show.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Many thanks to Dan White for allowing us to use three of his photos for this article.