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To Be (Seen) or Not to Be (Seen) – Part 1

The photograph below currently appears in “The Portrait 2022” issue of the online journal, F-Stop Magazine.  Let me tell you its story.

On April 25, 2019, just before noon, I was walking in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut with a Canon 5D Mark III and the old “nifty fifty” (50mm f/1.8) lens.  At McLevy Green, next to the Bridgeport Town Hall, a couple of people were playing chess at one of the concrete tables on the edge of the Green.  After the game, the winner showed a gentle manner and graciousness, quietly assuring the loser that he’d played well and that winning comes in part just from luck.  My chess master (in truth, I don’t know enough to know how good he was) wore a hooded sweatshirt in a way that suggested a private, retiring personality.  Though it wasn’t cold outside, he seemed to hunch into his sweatshirt, to withdraw his face a little into the hood.  There was also something sad about his facial and bodily expression, a sadness that didn’t seem just of the moment or day, but some ongoing burden of memory or life.

“The Chess Master of McLevy Green” by Lawrence Russ

Between games, I asked him if he’d mind my photographing him.  He hesitated, looking into my eyes.  He asked why I wanted to do that and what I would do with the pictures I took.  I told him:  that I often submit photographs for exhibition or publication, as art, not for commercial purposes, and that I was drawn to him by the character that I read in his face and his words.  Finally he said, “Alright,” and without my asking him to do it, briefly held still and looked at the camera, holding the pose that you see above, not changing his expression, while I took a couple of exposures.  I asked him for his name and any contact information he was willing to give me, and told him that if one of the photos came out well, I’d be happy to give him a print of it, and also to let him know if the photo should later appear in a gallery or publication.  He told me only his first name, and showed no interest in telling me more.  He turned to the next person standing by the board, inviting him to sit for a match.

When I later worked on the few frames I’d taken, I was pleased with the one that wound up in F-Stop.  I liked the design elements provided by the chessboard and, more than that, the personality and mood that I felt I’d captured.  When something like that happens, I always feel that I’d like to share the results with the person who was kind enough to let me photograph him or her, hoping to show my gratitude for the opportunity and to please them with the results.

When it’s street photography, though, that’s almost never possible.  Even people who consent to be photographed by a stranger with a camera usually aren’t willing to give that stranger personal information like their full names or phone number or e-mail address.  Without such information, it’s virtually impossible to find the person again.  In this case, though, partly because of my emotional response to him, and partly because I thought that I had some good clues to go on, I resolved to try to find him and present him with a good-sized print of his image.

My mission failed.  But it wasn’t for lack of effort.  Whenever I could, I’d try to drive to the Green and check out the table where I’d seen him.  I tried at various times of day and various days of the week.  I did internet research, looking for people with his first name in Bridgeport and surrounding towns.  I researched chess groups and programs in the area, which led me to talk with people at the Main Library a block from the Green and the municipal building next to the Green.  I decided that I’d better to make a print, putting it into an archival sleeve with an archival backing board, and keep it in my car, to be ready in case I found him again.  There might not be a third time. I made leaflets that featured a little copy of my portrait of him and a note giving my name and a way to contact me, and asking him to contact me so I could give him the print, and asking anyone who knew him to get ahold of me or to tell him about my search.  I posted the leaflet on poles around the Green and on the public bulletin board in the Library.  I asked Library workers to contact me, or ask him to contact me, if they should see him.

“Engaged in the Game” by Lawrence Russ

I also questioned people I met at the Green, asking if they recognized him or knew who he was.  One person said that he thought he might have seen him around.  But that was as far as I got.  After months of my quest, I gave it up.

My wife, who I told about all this, said to me, when I titled the portrait and prepared to submit it for juried exhibitions or publications or competitions, that she believed, given my subject’s reluctance to be photographed and his possible disinterest in the whole business, that I shouldn’t give his first name in the title.  She was right (as always!), and I omitted the name, just calling the image “The Chess Master of McLevy Green.”

In the end (an illusory notion in itself, and here I am, still thinking about all this), I can’t know if what I did, in trying to do the best, was the best thing to do.  Why did my quest fail?  Did my chess player move away from Bridgeport?  Had he just been there on a visit?  Did he give up chess?  Or did he simply have no interest in becoming a more public figure or in having a kind of paper mirror reflecting his image in the house?  Maybe the chess player’s sensibility was spiritually superior to mine.

Looking back, I feel that I was probably too intrusive, too aggressive in my campaign.  But when I began it, of course, I didn’t know what it would take or how long it would go on.  Why did I put so much time and effort into the search?  Partly to say thank you not only to him, but to all of the portrait subjects that I’d had even less reason to believe I could ever locate or show what I’d made with their help.  And it was partly because I admired what I could see of his personality and was heartened by his helping a worthy piece of culture to survive.

But also, I have to believe, it was partly my own emotional self-interest that motivated me.  We artists are almost desperate sometimes to hear a portrait subject say something like, “Wow, you got a great picture of me!”, or to have the subject’s spouse say, “That’s the best picture anyone’s ever taken of him [or her].”  Or, as the wife of a colleague reportedly said when her husband showed her my headshot of him, “I wish you looked that good all the time.”

We’re often mistaken, though, in thinking that someone actually wants the “gift” that we want to give them.  Sometimes, the reality is that they have no interest in someone else’s photograph of anyone or anything.  Or in anything even vaguely artistic.  And some people have less vanity than we project onto them.

In the end, what I’ve come to believe about these events, with no certainty or means for certainty about the matter, is that it was right and good for me to try to find my subject and make him the (however-dubious) gift of his own image.  But I also believe that it was right and good that I failed in my search and didn’t much disturb his privacy or trouble his seeming lack of self-regard. Still, who knows?  The not-knowing, even after the show has left town or the fight is over, is part of the mystery in which we have to struggle to make peace with our decisions and artistic outcomes.  We never know what they’re worth and can’t know what part they play in the universe.  Like the dumbfounded woodcutter at the end of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, we have to put aside our confusion and ignorance, and then do – after careful consideration and prayer – what seems best.

Lawrence Russ View All

Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards including Honorable Mentions in the Architecture, Fine Art (series), Nature (series), Open Theme (series), Portrait, and Seascape categories from the international Fine Art Photography Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Fine Art-Other category from the International Photography Awards. Photographs of mine have been selected for exhibition or publications by or in the 2019 International Juried Exhibition of the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, CA), 2019 International Competition of The Photo Review, the 2019 Open Exhibition of the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins CO, F-Stop Magazine, Shadow & Light Magazine, Black Box Gallery in Portland OR, Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis MN, the Darkroom Gallery in VT, PhotoPlace Gallery in VT, A Smith Gallery in TX, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and many other journals and venues. My work has also been selected for inclusion in the Flatfile Program of Artspace New Haven (CT). My photography website is at .

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