Walt Whitman, paradigmatic poet of American idealism, once said, “Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of our people.”
That vital character is on show (and on the road) in a new photography exhibit called the ‘Character Project.’ It features the work of 11 contemporary photographers who each shot a small series of photographs of Americans during the summer of 2008. The “bulk” is represented here in photos taken of several different communities from all over the country, including Richard Renaldi’s photos of fishermen in Alaska and Anna Mia Davidson’s organic farmers in the Pacific Northwest. The photographs play witness to the summer parades in New York in beautiful black and white from Mary Ellen Mark, and the life of Columbia College students in Chicago from Dawoud Bey. David Eustace documented the men and women he found along U.S. 50, which runs 3,000 miles across the country, while other photographers, like Eric Ogden and Eric McNatt, returned to their hometowns to photograph the musicians of Michigan and the beauty queens of Texas.
In his introduction to the book, writer and NBC newsman Tom Brokaw defines character as “a seamless fabric of honesty, modesty and the kind of confidence that comes with quiet courage.” Abraham Lincoln, he says, is the gold standard of American character. Not a man renowned for his beauty, Lincoln indeed embodies “character” in multiple senses, with a face Americans love to look at in photos despite its flaws. He’s a good patron saint for this project, which pictures an honest, and not over-idealized, face of America.
The Character Project, sponsored by USA Network with support from the Aperture Foundation, is travelling across the country through May 17, with stops in Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles and San Francisco, among others.