They're the people we might encounter anywhere: those with dogs, those in casual or business clothes, those in uniform. We pass them every day, noticing some more than others. But do we really see them?
An exhibition organized by the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, featuring large-scale photographs of our local population, asks you to stop and stare as you traverse Tampa's Riverwalk, where the center sits. It's the work of Daniel Chauche, who spent two weeks roaming the Tampa Bay area snapping portraits of people who mostly just happened by the white backdrops he set up in Tampa, Tarpon Springs and St. Petersburg.
"Who We Are: Faces of Tampa Bay," which was recently extended through July 17, is an unlikely commission for the Straz, a venue not typically associated with visual art. And Chauche was an unexpected choice for it.
Chauche, 64, has lived and worked in Guatemala for most of his adult life, though he is a U.S. citizen who earned an MFA from the University of Florida. His residency in this region during January and February was a combination of coincidence, serendipity and the help of Georgiana Young, the Straz's vice president of marketing and programming.
"Georgiana worked in Guatemala as the director of a cultural foundation," Chauche said, "and I did a project for them about three years ago. That's how we met."
He's a versatile photographer, but has become best known for portfolios of everyday Guatemalans, many living humbly in towns and villages. Young thought an exhibit with portraits of residents in this region, done by Chauche in his pop-up studio method, would be an entertaining and illuminating interval along the Riverwalk.
So, as you walk, you meet construction workers, biker dudes, a sponge diver, Red Hat ladies, lovers, a man in an S&M mask, Tampa police Chief Eric Ward and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. Buckhorn was a scheduled shoot, as were police officers and firefighters at the Straz's request, Chauche said, but everyone else was a random encounter.
He and his partner, Maria Elena, found locations with a lot of foot traffic — Gasparilla was a gold mine — and he set up his white backdrop and camera while she approached passers-by.
"I explain who we are," Maria Elena said. "I ask their names, ages, what they do. It's a three- to five-minute explanation. Most were very open. More than 60 percent said yes."
"I live in downtown St. Petersburg and was walking my dog along Central Avenue," Kathleen Gladstone said. "Of course, I had to ask Quetee (her dog) if she wanted her picture taken."
If a subject showed exceptional promise, Maria Elena was more aggressive. That's how Santa Mike joined the show.
"We saw a man with a white beard and Santa hat riding a motorcycle in St. Petersburg. We followed him and Maria Elena got out of the car at a light and introduced herself," Chauche said. "We had to set up and work quickly because he was on his way to pick up his grandson."
Chauche is a street photographer in a literal sense, although that term is used to describe a style of photography in which a scene is spontaneously captured, with people often not realizing they're being photographed. He is studied in his method, creating a neutral, universal background in front of which people knowingly pose.
"There is no context," Chauche said. "The only reference is to the people themselves."
He has a portable printer and gives each participant a 3- by 5-inch print as a "symbolic gesture of the contribution."
He's used to working quickly in the field but said the editing process for this project was challenging.
"I can spend two to 10 years on regular projects," he said. "This was done in a few weeks."
He had 260 images that, according to the agreement with the Straz, would be winnowed down to 24 to 30.
"It's easy to pick out the top 15 to 20," Chauche said. "Then it becomes harder."
He gave leaders at the center 50 images from which they could choose the final group. They, instead, wanted them all. They were reproduced on vinyl to withstand outdoor conditions.
Ryan Connors of Lakeland and his son Logan, 13, made the cut.
"We were going into a Lightning game and Logan really wanted the free printout, so I said sure. You never expect to hear from them again, they're taking so many pictures. I got a copy of the photo and had it made into a poster for him. He was so excited."
Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.