January 8, 2010
Most people are interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Not Susan Mullally. She focuses her lens on the poor and unknown.
Those who view the life-size color photographs in her exhibition What I Keep will look into the eyes of 20 people who have many struggles and few possessions. Mullally, an assistant professor of art at Baylor University, shot individual portraits -- with each person holding a keepsake -- beneath Interstate 35 in Waco. There, they worship with others at the Church Under the Bridge.
The exhibition is not a gloomy one.
In one photo, a bearded man with eyes of Paul Newman-blue gazes into the camera, pushing a grocery cart. His shirt is frayed and faded, but his passenger -- a toy dog -- is new, sporting a red muffler.
"I pick up stuffed animals all the time," he told Mullally. "I found him, this little dog, in a dumpster down in the projects in the South Side while I was picking up cans.
"The reason I picked it up is because whenever I see a little child I give it to him."
In another image, a former librarian peers over spectacles, his cigarette tucked between his lips and a wooden board game set propped on his lap.
"I like chess and backgammon; they're intelligent games," he said.
A woman with long red hair and a cross around her neck clutches a purple tambourine -- a $3 leftover from a garage sale. Her boss gave it to her, she said, and "now I'm making a joyful noise for the Lord."
When Mullally moved to Waco from Winston-Salem, N.C., nearly three years ago, she left behind an inner-city church she loved.
As the neighborhood had changed, many of its members had moved, but "the church was built on neighborhood and community," she said. "That didn't change. The church didn't fold up and go away.
"I was looking for a similar situation here," she said. "But I certainly didn't think I'd find it under I-35."
Then she met Dr. Jimmy Dorrell, pastor of the church and executive director of Mission Waco, who teaches Christian social action at Baylor University. Mullally began to attend the church weekly.
In the bulletin, she spotted a notice: "We need a photographer to take photos for the directory."
"They had always wanted one," Mullally said. "I thought, `I'm a photographer. I can do that.'"
She helped make order out of the "pure chaos" of a constantly changing congregation, Dorrell said.
"Some are in jail or have moved," he said. "Our congregation tends to turn over a little more than others. Now we have a little directory, and it's more personal."
But Mullally wanted to do more.
"I knew from the get-go I wanted to do their portraits," she said.
She used a similar approach to that she used for her "virtual museum" -- individual photos of friends with their most cherished items, exhibited in a display case. She posts them, along with friends' tales about what they keep, on her Web site.
She asked the same questions -- "What do you keep? Why?" -- of the people who gather under the bridge. But toting a display case and laptop for note-taking there would have been cumbersome.
So she asked church members to sign photo releases and jotted their replies on the back of the pages.
"Most have had disruptive lives - incarcerations, homelessness, addictions to drugs, bad choices," she said. "I'm interested in people who have had interesting lives and struggles but who have been overlooked. Their accomplishments may not be as obvious."
Like the disabled former Marine who proudly shows his black tag from Narcotics Anonymous -- the symbol of staying clean for two years. Or the former middle school teacher who learned to sew without patterns. She gives her dresses such names as "I Will Dance With God."
Mullally shoots the photos against a gray background -- support pillars of the interstate. She has been invited to show them this year at Duke University in Durham, N.C., Pennsylvania State University's University Park campus and Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C.
Activist/artist/author elin o'Hara slavick said Mullally's photos create "a spark of recognition, an empathy ... she does not consider her subjects as freaks. She is making photographs as a good citizen, as a concerned woman ... ."
Mullally said she knew that "if you talk to somebody, you begin to know them. I wanted to do it; I just didn't know if it would work out."
It has, Dorrell said.
"The temptation is always to make poor people look sad and poor, the worst of the worst," he said. "But Susie didn't do that. She captured the way they are."