Pulling Together: The Portrait Project
Pulling Together: Community Portraits From a Year Like No Other
Despite the pandemic, North Bennet Street School (NBSS) Retail & Exhibit Manager Kristen Odle couldn’t stand to cancel the Annual Celebration of Craft: Student & Alumni Exhibit, a favorite tradition in which students and alumni display and sell their strongest work from the past year. Instead, she ambitiously reshaped the exhibition into a series of unique studio portraits of NBSS students, staff, and faculty.
Initially, the Portrait Project set out to thank the students for sustaining an incredibly challenging year with the practical gift of a professional headshot. However, the idea soon took on a life of its own and became a meaningful vehicle for recording and documenting each participant’s unique educational experience. Kristen explains, “The project quickly blossomed into an online exhibit that showcases who we are and what we have been working on all year.”
Tony Luong, a talented Boston photographer known for capturing the humanness of his subjects, previously shot a portrait of Lance Patterson CF ’79, fabled Cabinet & Furniture Making instructor. Drawn to Tony’s warm, “more-than-a-photographer” personality that makes those around him feel confident and relaxed during shoots, Kristen tapped him for the project, and he gamely agreed to photograph 93 community members over four days.
“We told everyone to bring in whatever you’ve been working on this year. If you struggled with dovetails, then bring in your dovetail [joinery] setup. We want to document that because you should really be proud,” Kristen says.
While preparing for the shoot, Tony revisited The Skilled Tradesman, a famous series of gelatin silver print portraits by German photographer August Sander, as well as The Small Trades, Irving Penn’s iconic 1950’s portraits of petit métiers (small tradesmen) posing in work uniforms beside their tools. However, unlike Penn’s images which sometimes come across as condescending and classist, the NBSS portraits are grounded in respect and optimism.
Altogether, the process demanded a grueling 20 hours of time broken down into 15-minute increments for each photo shoot. A small conference room was transformed into a temporary photography studio with the addition of lighting equipment, a Nikon D810, a natural canvas backdrop, plus Kristen and Tony.
Students and faculty hauled in everything from a piano action and a meticulously built violin, to 18th century bound books, sentimental toolboxes, and hand-fabricated rings. Faculty member Michael Burrey worked on his shave horse, and several Preservation Carpentry students posed beside a Corinthian capital with acanthus leaves they are carving in relief—part of the Hancock mansion door façade recreation, an ongoing, multiyear project. Some of the portraits, like that of Daniel Osach CF ’21 adjusting his stiff leather work boots, take on a confident, performative mood, while others like Susan Sit PT ’21 listening to headphones with her eyes closed, feel intimate and contemplative.
Kristen’s own portrait features a frayed 100-foot-long cable—a memento of all the equipment she carted between NBSS workspaces to plug in her laptop for various virtual In the Making episodes.
From behind the lens, Tony observes that, “being able to bring in a piece that they made or tools they used gave people space to feel confidence and a sense of pride. What came out was a mood of hope for how these pictures will appear in the future, in terms of doing things with your hands and the sense of community that got us through this rough year.”
Insightful thoughts and favorite NBSS memories accompanying each portrait on the project’s website give vivid individual voices to human resilience, and a sheer love for the school and the lasting lessons it imparts.
View the full set of portraits at nbssportraits.com.
This story is part of the 2021 issue of Benchmarks magazine. View more Benchmarks stories here, or download a pdf of the entire issue.