Book Review: All of Us: Portraits of An American Bicentennial by Richard Beaven
In All of Us: Portraits of an American Bicentennial there are only two portraits which don’t show us the entire person being photographed. The approach Richard Beaven takes to include the whole person in his his project photographing the community of Ghent, New York allows the viewer to get a feel for who each person is, how they hold their hands, how they stand alone within the frame he has placed around them. There is a sense of place and person in these portraits. The palpable feelings of these specific people and their community, and in a greater sense all of us, is a key to what makes this work so strong.
“I think my view of human life is how brief and curious most people’s lives are. Yet when you come to talk to them you realize how strong they are and how unbelievably rich their lives are; and how subtle and various.” Ronald Blythe, Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village
The quote above is from the first few pages of the book, and appropriately sets the tone for the following 140+ pages. Beaven, who is originally from Exeter in the county of Devon, England, has made Ghent, New York his full time adopted home since 2011. Inspired by his town’s bicentennial in 2018, Beaven spent the 200th anniversary year meeting with and photographing the community of Ghent, crisscrossing back and forth over the 149 miles that comprise the town area. The individuals he photographed range in age from infant to elderly; and have lived or worked in Ghent from just five days to over ninety years. The portraits in the book list both their names and their time spent living in Ghent.
Richard Beaven says this about the project and the driving force behind it: ”…my long-term approach is to use my photography to create a wide-ranging survey of our time that examines cultural and socio-political themes. My goal is to contribute meaningfully to the broader archive during this challenging, divisive, and transformative time in American history.”
Challenging, devising and reflective are just a few words to capture where the United States finds itself in the Fall of 2020. This book arrived just in time for election week in November, and it is a comfort in the omnipresent swirling maelstrom of politics and everyday life. Beaven’s portraits grounded me in a way that felt soothing and reassuring. The viewer can see themselves in the faces of these strangers, the viewer can see their family members and their own community reflected back at them. Through making this work, Beaven came to know his community on a more profound level; enabling him to connect its residents from all walks of life with each other. Creative director Kira Pollack addresses this aspect in her foreword, ”Never before have we so needed to be reminded of community; of that which unites us, not divides us,” she writes.
Professor and writer Tom Lewis contributed an essay for the book’s afterword, and he also recognizes the intersectionality of people and place, and the way each connect to and inform the other. “These men, women, and children appear as the latest generation of those who have come before, those who have lived on the land and with it,” he writes. Lewis also points out Beaven’s ability to reveal emotional tethers to land, and how his composition elevates ordinary moments and gestures and expressions. “Some seem at peace with the land, others perhaps not. A young woman stands in a harvested field, her shadow lengthening out across the corn stubble. Another holds her bass clarinet against a background of mullein, wildflowers, and forest. A widow lovingly cradles a framed photograph of her husband as he stands beside a calf.”
More than 80% of the people Beaven met with were “strangers” to him at the beginning of the All of Us project. By the end of the project, Beaven had created a visual narrative of a small, rural town through the resulting 276 portraits (60 are reproduced in the book), and paid homage to a specific time and place in American history. Through the making of this work, Beaven came to know his community on a more profound level enabling him to connect its residents from all walks of life with each other.
In difficult times, we find strength from the aspects of life and those around us who help us recognize how interconnected we truly are. It may not feel like it at times. To paraphrase, a smarter person than me once said, ‘A divided nation cannot stand.’ Beaven’s portraits admirably show a town, a community, and a slice of our collective nation – standing together.
All of Us: Portraits of An American Bicentennial by Richard Beaven
Essays by Kira Pollack and Tom Lewis
144 pages; 60 Color Photographs
10 1/4 x 8 1/4 inches
Published by Daylight Books
Richard Beaven (b. 1966) is a British documentary portrait photographer. whose work centers on communities and cultures around his home in The Hudson Valley, New York where a rich history of European settlement exists. His work specifically investigates senses of identity and belonging informed by personal experiences as an immigrant and observations, simultaneously, as both insider and outsider. His work has appeared in National Portrait Gallery (UK), International Center of Photography (NY) and has been awarded by American Photography and National Press Photographers Association.
Kira Pollack is Creative Director of Vanity Fair magazine, Former Director of Photography Visual Enterprise at TIME magazine, and Deputy Photo Editor at The New York Times Magazine.
Tom Lewis is Professor Emeritus of English at Skidmore College. The author of five books, including The Hudson, he lives in Scarborough, Maine.
Also published on Medium.