Portraiture, specifically the act of photographing a community outside one’s own, has a difficult history. It can be loaded with the photographer’s projections of their own experiences, and in the worst case scenario, put forth a flawed, voyeuristic gaze directing viewers to stop and stare at people as specimens. Typological, serialized portraiture can drive this even further with less environmental context exaggerating an under-the-microscope kind of looking. But when it works, there’s a balance of collaboration between the photographer and the photographed - an empathy-steered journey.
Enter Los Angeles-based Tracy L. Chandler. We met at the Photolucida portfolio reviews last month and I was drawn to her work for the questions it sparked in me. Her series, Edge Dwellers, is a collection of portraits of a community of socially marginalized people living on the literal and metaphoric edge of the Southern California coast. Photographing them against the sky at a consistent distance, these typological images bring to mind traditions ranging from August Sander through Rineke Dijkstra's Beach Portraits, and more recently and directly, Katy Grannan's 99 series.
Shooting with a 4x5 large format camera, the experience is slowed down. We often look deeply into the eyes of those being photographed while paying attention to every detail of how they look, as a signal of their marginalization. On one level, her portraits feel "outsider" in their approach. Who are we to “look in” on them, to aestheticize their experience, and what right does Chandler have to photograph them? But for the photographer, these portraits are more about collaboration, about a mutual sharing of experience that ultimately ends in a photograph as a memento for a greater bond.
Still curious, I emailed Chandler to learn more.
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Tracy L. Chandler