By Patsy Isenberg
A stunning exhibit of Flint native Dan White’s 58 larger-than-life portraits, “The Folks of Flint: A Tribute,” opens at the Capitol Theatre Thursday. The labor of love reveals a lot about the city that White, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, wishes to honor.
There’s the determination written all over Michael Jackson’s face – captured inside a stripped down entryway – as he stares out a block-glass window and leans on one of his crutches. He’s homeless, disabled, and often seen around town.
There’s six-year-old twin brothers Andrew and Cooper Owens-Peters standing soberly on their sidewalk, decked out in colorful vests, holding hands, and looking a little apprehensive.
There’s U.S. Congressman Dan Kildee, thoughtfully staring out a window in slanting light. There’s blues musician Joel Bye, lighting up a cigarette, the Torch Bar lit up behind him on Buckham Alley.
There’s 96-year-old Betty Noonan, bedecked in blue and grinning with delight at the camera—she grew up in the Capitol where her mother ran the Franco-American, a beauty salon and gift shop.
There’s an exuberant Lottie Reid, owner of the Golden Leaf, the oldest black-owned bar in Flint. And the Dirrell brothers. And the Chimovitz brothers, and the Viehl brothers, Chris and Matt, from Steady Eddy’s. And the Nassar sisters. And Oaklin Mixon beaming in his upstairs Good Boy Clothes space, and downtown fixture Kathleen “Kitty” Gazall, stylish and striding across Saginaw Street. And St. Paul’s Episcopal rector Dan Scheid, sitting on the carpeted aisle in blue jeans and a clerical collar.
And many more—a total of 58 images White has brought from the streets, homes, offices of Flint to the Capitol.
After Thursday’s VIP reception for the portrait subjects and project supporters, the show will be open to the general public beginning Friday, Aug. 24 and is scheduled to run through early October.
Recently East Village Magazine visited White at JD Photo Imaging for a preview and to talk to him about how the show came to be, the process at this stage, and how he feels about it. As we talked, the huge prints were slowly rolling off an Epson 11880 high resolution printer and being checked and cut by White with the aid of his assistant Will Alston, 40, also from Flint. Alston studied photography at UM-Flint.
About the Art
The prints are 44” x 60” color portraits of 60 Flint subjects. Some are well-known and some are “ordinary people” who attracted White’s photographer’s heart and eye and who he felt were worthy of having a portrait like this.
The collection features local sports personalities, politicians, religious figures, students, musicians, style icons, activists, artists, children, heads of institutions, a playwright, entrepreneurs, brothers, sisters, power couples, co-workers.
Among them are people of various ages, genders, cultural backgrounds, religions, and more. Or, as White explains in the introduction to these pieces on his website, “individual people who have personal stories to share.”
Beneath each portrait is a short commentary about who they are, their story. Some of the words are directly from the people themselves and are short and to the point. Such is the case in the story beneath the portrait of community activist Tony Palladeno, Jr. as he stares out from a basement window on the east side of Flint in a red shirt and hat.
“I loved my neighborhood, like you should,” Palladeno’s statement reads. “Doubt has set in now. The times have changed, but my love has not.”
One of the longer narratives is the one beneath the striking image of a perfectly content looking man in a white suit lying on his back in a sea of blueberries. That’s “Flintster” Phil Shaltz, entrepreneur, philanthropist, keeper of the blueberries, and thinker-outside-the-box.
Most of the narratives, each one a polished mini-biography, were written by Ashley Nickels, a Kent State University professor and scholar who was in Flint doing research for a book; and EVM editor and writer Jan Worth-Nelson.
The power of light and local help
White took every decision into careful consideration. He said he usually prefers black and white photography for portraits, but feels this collection comes across best in color. He used both a Leica S and a Canon 5DsR.
He stresses light is the most important aspect in creating a photograph, especially a portrait, so he brought additional light sources to each sitting. In most cases, White used the extra lighting, even for the portraits shot outdoors. White’s photographs characteristically include a surprising feature of light in each composition.
Each step of the project required careful consideration and led White to reach out to trusted professionals he could count on to help. In the early stages, White searched for someone knowledgeable from Flint to assist him locally and he chose Alston.
Later on, as he decided on the weight and finish of the paper, finding a printing company in the area to provide the high level of reproduction the pieces required was necessary. He settled on JD Photo Imaging on Corunna Rd.
White also knew graphic design was an important feature for the pieces, so he called upon an associate of his from an ad agency in Kansas City to provide the design, with his input of course.
It’s been a two-year investment of White’s time and the project is personal, he said, so every decision was important–especially when it came to how the portraits would be displayed. For example, he chose to display most of the pieces “organically,” not mounted, and instead will be hanging them from aluminum rods placed along the top and bottom edge of each piece. Asked where the portraits would be placed in The Capitol, he said he’d decided to hang them in various rooms around the theater to keep people moving around the venue.
About the Artist
Soft-spoken White, 61, was born and raised in Flint and graduated from Northern High School in 1975 and still has friends and relatives here. A longtime Kansas City resident, White comes back to Flint several times a year and considers it home.
One story from his childhood still resonates: a memory of “sitting on…Dad’s shoulders to witness President Kennedy ride down the street in an open convertible.”
“I made a mental picture of that moment,” White says, later recalling “the vibrancy and optimism of not only the president, but also of that energetic and seemingly boundless Midwestern city.”
And since Flint has become the focus of bad news and negativity in recent years, White says he aimed to document the “proud, hard working, humble, and giving” folks of Flint.
White says he wants to “share these portraits and their stories in an honest and respectful manner that reflects all that is good in a city that has had more than its share of downturns.”
White started his journey as a photographer at eleven and worked part-time at The Flint Journal while still in high school. He interned at The Everett Herald in Washington and The Muskegon Chronicle in Michigan. He obtained a Bachelor of Journalism degree, with an emphasis on photojournalism, from the University of Missouri, the state where he now lives. White went on to work for The Kansas City Star where he was working when a Hyatt Hotel skywalk collapsed in July of 1981. White’s team covered the story, which won them a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage.
White has been all over the world since. He has documented, in photographs, places such as Vietnam, France, and China to name just a few. Several of his completed collections can be seen on his website, danwhite.com, but there are many other projects in the works.
Find Out More About Dan White
All of the folks in the portraits, as well as others who contributed to its completion, are invited to the VIP event on Aug. 23. Anyone else interested in attending the VIP event can contact Dan White at 816-421-2400. He said a $50 donation to help cover costs for the opening and the exhibit would be appreciated.
The show will run from Friday Aug. 24 through early October. Visitors can see the pieces hanging in the Capitol Theatre “arcade” Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. beginning Aug. 24. The whole show, placed throughout the building, can be viewed 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. each Thursday, Friday and Saturday through early October. Admission is free.
He hopes other cities around the country will want to host this show after it premiers in Flint.
More about Dan White’s background, his connections to Flint, his family, and how the project has been funded is available in Jan Worth-Nelson’s EVM story of June, 2017 here.
Banner/feature photo of Harold Ashburn. Copyright Dan White.
EVM staff writer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.