In every day life, dozens of people pass in and out of our range of vision, their faces set with determination to get where they’re going and do what they need to. But the attitudes that people convey in public rarely reveal what’s beneath the surface. In his series titled 100 Strangers, photographer Anthony Bellemare digs deeper, transforming brief encounters with passers-by into intimate and enduring portraits.
Bellemare started the project in 2008, without any sweeping goals of capturing the spirit of the times or representing a group of people. “I saw it as a way to access new people and new opportunities,” he says. While much of his artistic career has focused on mural painting, he has worked in large-format printing for years, and currently runs a trade show exhibition company. With small kids at home, painting demanded more time and space than he could give it, so photography — which had always been part of his work —presented itself as the perfect medium for this phase of his life.
The process of developing his 100 Strangers project was spontaneous and inspiration-driven: if the light was right and time permitted, he’d walk around downtown Asheville for two or three hours in the afternoon, waiting for someone to catch his eye. “Calling yourself a photographer, conveying that confidence, and approaching people is challenging,” Bellemare says. Consequently, many of his first subjects were those who approached him rather than the reverse. In exchange for the change they asked him for, he’d ask for their picture.
Overwhelmingly, those self-selecting subjects were men whose faces have a kind of built-in interest: they’re weathered or scarred — they wear a lot of their history right there on their sleeves. But Bellemare manages to create images that don’t exploit that vulnerability. Rather, they turn it on is head. There’s a pride, confidence, and sense of self-satisfaction in many of his most marginalized subjects, and getting that to come out has become one of his primary goals. “I approach everyone from a position of respect,” he says. “And I think that comes across in the work.”
Broadening his portfolio to include women and less likely candidates has taken time. “If a strange man comes up to you and asks you to take your picture, there’s not a lot of trust,” he says. “You really don’t know what people are going to do with that image.” Bellemare says that he offers potential subjects his business card and lets them look at other samples of his work to make them more comfortable. “I don’t blame them at all if they say no,” he says. But once they’ve committed, the process of getting the subject to show a little of their true personality begins.
Bellemare says there’s no telling how a subject will respond, but it’s obvious when he’s reached his goal. “I know when I’ve got the shot. It might take two takes or it might take 30,” he says. “It’s all about the timing — about waiting for that moment when someone lets down their guard.”
The authenticity of the moment is important for Bellemare: there’s no styling or lighting, and he rarely does any touch ups in Photoshop. He uses a compact Canon G10 digital camera and generally shoots his subjects at either a “normal” focal length — about 50mm — or at the wide end, which provides a dramatic distortion to the image. The small size of the camera is less intrusive and makes his subjects feel more comfortable, Bellemare says, allowing him to be more responsive in the moment. Converting the images to black and white is about the only measure of control he uses on the process. “I don’t want color to be a factor,” he says. “Taking that out let’s me focus more on texture and on the face in the portrait. It makes it more timeless.”
Given his background in large-format printing, Bellemare is particularly interested in taking those small moments and enlarging them. “Taking a closeup of someone and then blowing it up larger than life can be really impactful,” he says.
As the project has evolved, Bellemare has found himself expanding beyond just the individual on the street, focusing on the person in his or her “actual environment.” It’s another step toward reaching the realness that he’s always seeking from behind the camera’s lens.
To see more photos from the 100 Strangers visit his website: Anthony Bellemare, Photographer