r e s p o n s e 

s u s a n  g a r r e t t



f you had walked quietly into Grace Cathedral in San Francisco two winters ago, you would have faced an unusual sight. Exhibited on the church’s interior pillars were photographs of homeless people, images that might have changed the content of your prayers that morning.

Photographer Lucy Gray’s black-and-white portraits are beautiful in themselves. Take away their message and they stand alone as works of art. Contrast of light and shadow, soft clear tones, lines that let the eye lead itself effortlessly through substance and detail – all are there. But the message is Gray’s intent. These are documentary works, photographs with a purpose. Each subject has been photographed twice, “before” and “after,” first, as a homeless person or couple in their daily poverty, and second, as models: dressed in good clothes and posed as a commercial photographer might pose them for a magazine shot. It is essentially a gimmick, but an indirect one, designed to ask us to think differently about homeless people, to see them differently.

What does the photographer want us to see? Homeless people suddenly transformed into models, ideals, people “at their peak,” as Gray writes in her accompanying text? Or people who could easily be our friends and neighbors? What first catches my interest in these photographs-with-a-purpose is the seeming ease, the relaxed comfort of the subjects in their new, dressed-up roles.

Here is Rosemary McCord. She stands in a doorway, her left hand gently supporting her in the frame. Behind her two small paintings hang on a wooden wall, hung for pleasure, for fun, placed off-center, for style, decoration, amusement. The expression on her face is one of mild curiosity, a wait-and-see look at something in the middle distance. For the matching “after” image, the photographer has persuaded her to put on a sleeveless sweater, long black satin gloves, a black feather necklace and a grand hat made of swirling white tulle piled on top of dark straw. Her hair has been cut and darkened, shaped in a chic French cut that ventures onto her cheek. It is the same face, the same strong-looking woman rising to this odd occasion by posturing as an actress might, mimicking slightly a pose that she thinks should go with the clothing. The detail that delights – what Roland Barthes would call the “punctum” – is the tattoo on her arm that is wonderfully out of place in the high-style costume. But what strikes me most about her – and about all of the subjects of these before-and-after photographs – is how naturally she assumes a new role in costume. She knows she is play-acting but the calm strength in her face tells us that she is herself. She could have been wearing that hat for years.

Look at the young couple sitting together on a mattress, looking out from the open door of their van. They are “down on their luck,” as the text tells us, but except for some litter in the form of loose papers and a soda can, they appear content in their situation. Their little cat sits alertly by. A pair of sneakers looks clean, in good shape. After, when they are dressed in real clothes – she in a strapless black dress and he in a good sweater and shiny leather jacket – their smiles are broader but they are the same people, capable of having fun, enjoying the moment.

Here also is Robert Simmons, who according to the text, “blew it” with his wife and daughter, but with two years of recovery he has gained back some of his life. In the first picture he is standing alone in front of a wooded path that appears to lead nowhere, his hands helplessly at his sides, looking at the camera with a bit of annoyance in his face. In the second picture he is sitting up on a comfortable-looking bed, dressed in pajamas and dressing gown, holding the Money & Business section of the New York Times and smiling, as if he were in agreeable conversation with someone in the room. It is the same Robert Simmons. What is surprising is the similarity, not the difference, between the subject’s demeanor before and after. The same facial expression, almost. The same humanity; it does not change with new clothes, a new facade, or a new setting.

Now we see Richard Stephens, who survived a “near fatal car crash” in 1997. In the first picture he stands outside under a clothesline where a coat hangs by one small strong clothespin. This, by itself, is a beautifully composed picture. Indulging my own love of detail, I delight in the second clothespin on the line. This clothespin has nothing to hold and looks like a free but lonesome bird, filling no function. Richard Stephens’ expression in the first picture is darkly serious, dignified, and it is the same in the second picture, where he is dressed in a good suit and seated in front of a full plate of food, holding up a glass of wine. A fine picture punctuated by the expression on Richard Stephens’ face. We expect to see some joy and we do not. He does not celebrate his new situation because it is not real, it is a momentary play-act. He wonders if a joke is being played on him. Is he toasting the photographer? Or was he asked to hold up the glass and is going along with all of this, dutifully and without pleasure? We look at his eyes and see dignity, resignation, perhaps anger. I remain in front of him for a long time, and while searching and longing for a clue to his thoughts, I linger over the photographer’s composition – the elegant, rhymed placement of a wine bottle and shakers of salt and pepper.

The human being is an entangled whole at all times in all situations, no matter what deprivation he or she must endure. Lucy Gray writes in her program notes: “These models are complex adults as rich as reality. Just because they are in need doesn’t make them simple.”

These photographs are subtle and completely engaging. Who are their subjects? We are alike, we and they. We are difficult creatures who share a common humanity. Lucy Gray’s pictures show – not by a dramatic transformation of the subjects’ appearance before and after but by the absence of transformation – that the homeless can, with attention from us, move into lives not unlike those of most of the churchgoers moving slowly along the aisles of Grace Cathedral.

See also:

Naming the Homeless: Portfolio

“Statement,” Lucy Gray


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