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Rick Ashley is a Boston commercial photographer and recent Artist in Residence at Boston University’s Center for Digital Imaging Arts. In his thirty plus years as a photographer, he has created many fine art projects, most often featuring his hometown of Marblehead, Massachusetts. However, one of his most enduring subjects is Michael, a 48 year-old man with Downs Syndrome who is his brother-in-law.
The current series of “Michael” portraits originated as Ashley prepared to teach a course in portrait photography. A supervisor’s comment that “to create great portraits, all you need to know is how to pose your subjects” goaded Ashley into creating a series of “posed portraits” that disproved this misconceived notion, without polluting the photographic world with even more bad portraits.
The following is an excerpt of a conversation I had recently with Rick Ashley about his portraits of Michael, including his divisive Superman photographs, some of which can be viewed at Panopticon Gallery in Kenmore Square, Boston through July 9, 2013.
Elin: Why did you choose Michael to create your “posed portraits”?
Rick: I hoped that by combining Michael’s natural candor with these pretentious poses, I would bring attention to the superficial nature of posing, specifically, and our inability to really know anyone through a portrait, generally.
Elin: What was Michael’s reaction to the project?
Rick: Michael has always been fully engaged in the project. He sits, puts his hands where I ask and looks where I ask him – or not – as Michael doesn’t do what he doesn’t want to do.
Elin: Your portraits of Michael include not only photographs, but paintings. Can you comment on the evolution of this work?
Rick: I started out making stereotypical public relations and editorial-type studio shots, posing Michael as “the author”, “the jock”, or “the hipster” for example. Then I grew curious about how the realism of these photographs would differ from a more mythical, painted version. I was interested in addressing the bigger question of how communication works by investigating different representations of the same person.
These photographs and paintings were created to explore issues of artifice and identity and to see if Michael and I could make interesting pictures together. An artist presents a piece and a viewer interprets it in personal terms, adding meaning to the work. The more ambiguous, the greater the viewer’s freedom for interpretation.
Elin: How did your portraits of Michael come to include the most current photographs of him in his Superman costume?
Rick: I started looking into the origins of portrait poses in paintings, starting with the Renaissance. The subjects of these formal portraits were dressed in their finery and surrounded by props that illustrated their status and achievement. So I decided to utilize some of the visual elements and contextual clues made famous by artists such as Caravaggio, Rubens, Sargent and Hopper. Since Michael prefers his Superman suit to all other modes of dress, with the possible exception of Spiderman, I decided that Superman would best represent the idea without letting the theme drift into Michael’s love of superheroes. The goal was to employ the concepts used in these paintings, not merely copy them. The Superman suit is to Michael what the Tuxedo is to James Bond.
Elin: Were you surprised by the reactions you’ve received from the Superman photographs?
Rick: Yes. When I showed painted versions of some of my original studio-type portraits of Michael in Boston, Houston and Santa Fe, people were intrigued and interested in seeing more. But when I added the Superman photographs, I definitely hit a nerve. I’ve been told everything from, “this work makes me uncomfortable” to “you’re promulgating negative stereotypes of the disabled” to “don’t you think you’re taking advantage of Michael?”
Rick: Michael and I have been taking pictures together for 38 years and we have a strong relationship beyond the camera. The truth is, I am actually manipulating Michael when I put him in a dress shirt and sports coat, but no one seems to mind that.
Elin: Your Superman portraits of Michael are really enormous. I noticed at the Panopticon Gallery exhibit opening that most people who commented on the portraits were amused, not suspicious or angry. Do you think the size might have anything to do with it?
Rick: The size and framing of the portraits is relative to the easel paintings on which they were based. As for the reaction of viewers at the opening, I’ve noticed that if I’m walking around with Michael when he’s in a costume, which he loves to do, people universally have a positive reaction and freely engage with him.
Elin: Perhaps seeing him either “in person” or “up close and personal” in a very enlarged photograph has the “personalizing” effect of creating a connection, whereas viewing a smaller version somehow induces people to regard ‘Michael as Superman’ as an object out of context.
Rick: I’ve been thinking it might be fascinating to create a book of the Superman portraits that includes the amazing variety of remarks and gallery rejection notices I’ve received regarding this work. People’s assumptions and the positions they take are so strong and yet so different – it’s highly charged.
Elin: Much of your work over the years seems aimed at encouraging people to re-examine their assumptions: that Marbleheaders are a rarified and elite group (Marblehead Portraits), that kids in a parade are overjoyed (A Horrible Parade), that prom-goers are primped and polished (Prom Couples). Is your work with Michael another incarnation of that?
Rick: Well, it goes even further. Ideally, I’d like all the “Michael” work to be shown as an inclusive body, with photographs next to paintings, all mixed together, so that the only commonality is the presence of Michael himself. Then you have the likelihood of neighboring portraits contradicting each other, constantly challenging viewers to re-evaluate and re-consider their assumptions about Michael specifically, about portraits generally, and even, by extension, about other people.