Review by Gerhard Clausing •
An excellent portrait is one that transcends time and place and is able to reach us with eternal human truths. This is a difficult task, since many individuals wear their outer appearance and their facial expressions like masks that are difficult for photographers to penetrate. In the case of people with developmental disabilities, there is less pretense, and this makes the task of representing them in portraits much more direct and the results more authentic.
Ryan Herz was given the chance to work with the residents of the Edgewood facility to portray them in the best way possible, since photographs were needed for the record. Back in 1976, he spent months to get to know the residents, producing not only the required documentation, but also stellar spontaneous portraits. The fact that this project would be reissued now, in its second edition, demonstrates that the work has withstood the test of time.
Much criticism has recently been voiced, alleging exploitation of the vulnerable by photographers. Aurora Berger presents a very perceptive essay in this book, tracing the 20th century history of such photography that often satisfied the crass voyeurism of the public, was primarily financially lucrative, and may have shown little concern about the people depicted. None of that applies here. We see very clearly that Herz feels a profound respect and love for the individuals he portrays; this empathy allows him to give us an honest representation of these people’s lives in an atmosphere of deeply shared humanity.
In explaining the title, Herz states, “They are children, no matter what their age might be, their feelings right on the surface without façade.” In surveying this photobook, we are treated to a foreword and introduction by the photographer; next we are visually introduced to the facility and its residents, followed by a large section of portraits. Especially in view of recent reports of malfeasance and maltreatment of residents of facilities, it is very important to see a visual record of an institution that treats its residents with kindness and respect, preserving their dignity.
The portrait section is particularly gripping and memorable. It is clear that in spite of certain deficits each individual possesses a sufficient amount of optimistic self-awareness, giving them a realistic and practical sense of continuity and connectedness that permits survival in a supportive community. Their sense of being different also seems to encourage a sense of appreciation of others, and differences in appearance, demeanor, and interaction seem less important here than in our hypercritical society at large. This, then, is the main lesson we can take away from these folks: focusing on what we share leads to a more productive coexistence than getting super-emotional and disturbed about our differences!
This photobook is generously sized at 12 x 12 inches (30 x 30 cm) and is printed on heavy matte stock that feels like expensive art paper. The images take on a timeless appearance, and turning the pages is a real pleasure, even though sharing and acknowledging the plight of these individuals is difficult. And yet it is of some comfort that they are more accepting of their shortcomings than many others we know who are outside of institutions.
This project is a classic; it allows us to engage in a constructive dialogue about providing supportive treatment of all the members of our society, and about the importance of supplying the kind of help that special needs require.
Photographer: Ryan Herz (born in Los Angeles; lives in Santa Monica, California)
Publisher: drkrm editions, Los Angeles, California; Second Edition © 2020
Essays: Aurora Berger, David A. Hovda, Ryan Herz
Hardback with illustrated cover, perfect binding; 102 pages, unnumbered, with 55 black-and-white images and two color collages; 12 x 12 inches (30.5 x 30.5 cm)
Photobook Designer: John Matkowsky
Articles & photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).