Joe Standart

Photographer and Public Artist
Headshot of a man with a hat.

Photo courtesy of Joe Standart

Music Excerpt: “Foreric: Piano Study,” composed and performed by Todd Barton, from the CD, Metascapes.

Joe Standart: My desire to photograph immigrants was really to put into a public dialogue the basic tenets of our constitution, sort of a discussion so that we can have a dialogue about free speech and who better to champion that than people who are coming from countries that didn’t have that?

Jo Reed: That‘s photographer, Joe Standart and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.

If you happened to have been in New London, Connecticut in 2006, you would have been struck by a public art exhibit in which 115 monumental portraits of its ordinary citizens were shown throughout the city streets. This was the New London Project and the brainchild of photographer Joe Standart. Joe, a highly successful commercial photographer, believed deeply that art could be a catalyst for community engagement. To that end, he founded the organization, Portrait of America, through which he would create public art initiatives. The New London Project was its first exhibit and an immediate hit. It was eventually seen by over 700,000 people and drew attention to New London’s young art scene. And just as important, it brought New London’s residents together—suddenly, everyone was a neighbor.

Standart has gone to do similar projects in Hartford and Litchfield with equally successful results.  And now, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the New London Project, he’s returned to that city with another yet public art initiative: WE ARE- A Nation of Immigrants. New London has richly diverse immigrant communities, and like many small towns across the country, its center has a raft of empty storefronts.  Joe Standart decided this time he would focus his exhibit on immigrants, and use the empty storefront windows of New London as his gallery. The result is astonishing—both in its breadth and its invitation to take a moment and reflect on the lives of those people. It takes a considerable amount of commitment and vision to put a prosperous business on the backburner and pursue the laudable, if uncertain, practice of public art.  So what made Joe Standart do it? And why start with New London?

Joe Standart: My thinking was after thirty years of a very rugged, hard-paced advertising career, I wanted to do something that benefitted other people or benefitted a community. And because we have a house near New London, I had gotten to know the city of New London and found it to be an exhilarating place that the architecture is amazing and the people are equally amazing. But if you start talking to them, they’re talking about it’s a city of promises, it’s never realized. Certainly, it was the whaling capital of the entire region years and years ago but now it suffers from a poor local economy and a number of other deficits. So I thought to photograph the people and try and reflect back to them the dignity that I saw in them and appreciated as I talked to them. I was really interested to see what would happen if I took these dignified portraits and shared them with them. Initially that was just take a picture of one person and give them a picture and as the project developed, and I photographed more and more people, it became very much of a community event in that my little pop-up studio on Bank Street became a hub. People loved to come in and see the photos that I put up on my wall I had sort of a growing gallery of portraits, and the discussion ensued about “well let’s have an exhibition, let’s share these with other people” and a couple galleries approached me and I thought, “that would be a spectacular thing to have in a gallery show” but I really wanted to have the show where I had found the people, which is basically me wandering through the streets. So we devised a way to have the exhibition on the streets as well as in the galleries.

Jo Reed: How did you come to be able to do that? I mean, I know enough about city bureaucracies to know, that takes a certain amount of doing, even when you’re offering to give them something, you just can’t do it.

Joe Standart: Right, right. That is a very perceptive comment. It took really creating a cohort of people who believed in the project who understood that a public exhibit could have a much broader impact. The individuals, residents of the city, certainly if done at a certain scale could attract visitors, so they understood that tourism would help the local economy, so this group and I advocated to the city and other groups to have this public exhibition out on the streets. And I went to the city governors, to the Lions Club, to probably twenty different organizations sort of presenting my case to the local tourist board who didn’t understand public art at all. So it really was a work of passion and of belief that this work could make a difference to the city. It took about a year of making my case and at the same time trying to raise money to support it, which was very difficult, especially back then people didn’t understand public art. They didn’t understand sort of what impact I could have and I don’t think they really did until it was up and they could see the tangible results. If they came to the opening they would have seen, you know, probably two thousand people gathered for this.

Jo Reed: And where were the pictures? Where did you hang them?

Joe Standart: The sort of epicenter of the exhibit was the train station. So there were two, thirty foot tall murals on the train station, one of a submariner, this is a submarine city across the river from Groton sub base, and a young girl who’s on a skate board, and it branched out from there. We had, in all but about 150 portraits, all of them at least life-sized so really no matter where in the city you went you were bumping into photographs. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Of your neighbors 

Joe Standart: Exactly, of your neighbors. And it was a thrill, the people would describe to me an experience of seeing somebody they had been curious about and never had the nerve to go up and talk to. But seeing them up there in a photograph, the barriers started to break down.  That sort of worked across racial bounds and religious bounds, people had a curiosity and were willing to take the risk of reaching out to other people.

Jo Reed: When you began to take peoples’ pictures, what would you say to them?

Joe Standart: I guess I must be a very trusting looking person. <both laugh> Because I basically just had fun. I would go up to people and people asked me, “what attracts you to certain individuals?” and it’s a hard thing to answer. It’s, I guess, just a gut feeling that somebody looks interesting or has a dynamic look so I would basically just go up and say, “I’m a photographer, I’m involved in this public art project, I would love it if they could come back to my little pop-up studio,” which was a block away or three blocks away-

Jo Reed: In a storefront?

Joe Standart: in a storefront that had been abandoned before I took over, and let me take their picture.

Jo Reed: When the exhibition went up, would you get feedback from some of the people whose portraits you took?

Joe Standart: Yes, absolutely. They just couldn’t quite believe it. Everybody in the town was so excited, I mean, nobody had ever seen anything like this and many homeless people that were involved, somebody was actually paying attention to them, honoring them, through these photographs. So the response was exhilarating: people were thrilled, people were bouncing up and down, they were telling their neighbors. Part of the exhibition was also at the Lyman Allyn Museum and we made, we made sure we invited all of the subjects and arranged for buses to get to the museum so people were in the museum who had never been in a museum before and they brought their family they brought their whole neighborhood.

Jo Reed: You mentioned part of what the exhibit did do for New London, and I’d love to have you talk about public art and how public art operates within a community.

Joe Standart: Right.

Jo Reed: And the responsibility, in fact, of an artist who chooses to do public art.

Joe Standart: For me it was a discovery, it was a journey in evolution. I didn’t understand public art when I started, I understood only that I wanted to take a portrait of one person and maybe change their self-view. So for me to go down a road where I was all of the sudden contemplating putting my work on buildings, in one moment seemed like the exact right thing to do in the sense that I was very purposely trying to develop a dialogue with my audience and with the public, and to share the lives of my subjects with the public. And you point out the responsibility, there were a lot of times, putting the first exhibition together where I was just, I was a little fearful, had no idea how people would respond, but in that case the whole city seemed to be with me as we were putting it together and I developed such a network of helpers and friends that everything seemed to be the right thing to do.

Jo Reed: New London: Portrait of a City went up in 2006,

Joe Standart: That’s right.

Jo Reed: and ten years later you’ve returned to New London but with a different focus.

Joe Standart: So when I came back to New London, I came initially with the idea of doing a tenth anniversary portrait exhibit, finding my subjects from ten years ago.  And when I started talking to the city about doing that exhibit, a couple people came to me and said, “you know, we’d love you to do that, but we’d also like to create a platform for you to do another project of your choosing.  And to put that on our storefront windows and help us deal with the issues that so many small towns in America have,” and that is disappearing businesses and empty storefronts.  And so we developed a strategy to do that, and I chose my topic of immigrants as my subject.

Jo Reed: Why did you choose to focus on immigrants?

Joe Standart: Well I, in the interim, I’d become very interested in the lives of immigrants. My interest in immigrants really came as a traveler to other countries and seeing the hardships that many people live in in other countries and really focusing on what America has to offer and what the freedoms that we enjoy in America are.  And my growing feeling that so many of us in America take what we have for granted. So my desire to photograph immigrants was really to put into a public dialogue the basic tenets of our constitution, sort of a discussion so that we can have a dialogue about free speech.  And who better to champion that than people coming from countries that didn’t have that opportunity or that freedom.

Jo Reed: Now, were you aware of how many immigrants were in New London and the breadth of where they came from?  Because honestly, Joe, until I walked through your exhibit, walked through the town, I had no idea that New London would be home to immigrants from so many different places.

Joe Standart: Right. Well, that’s absolutely true. New London, I think, is very special in lots of ways, but they’re culturally rich.  They do have immigrants from, I photographed them, from 20 different countries.

Jo Reed: what’s the population?

Joe Standart: It’s 27,000.

Jo Reed: And 20 different countries-- that’s astounding.

Joe Standart: Yeah. And I just scratched the surface, really. I could’ve gone on and on, but the social life in New London, is very accepting. And I think it’s, again, New London is exceptional in that people are very welcoming and accepting of people from different cultures. And I see it practically every day. And people celebrate those differences.

Jo Reed: How did you find people? How did you ask? How did they respond? Because there’s been a lot of pushback against immigrants. I mean, we hear it in the political landscape.  And I could see people might be a little bit reticent.

Joe Standart: You’re absolutely right. I approached my subjects in two ways.  One, through the assistance of people like Alejandro Menendez-Cooper at the Hispanic Alliance, who had fingers out into the community, all different kinds of communities.  The Hispanic Alliance is not just Hispanic or Latino.  It really represents the broad spectrum of immigrants.  So he and others like him were very helpful in helping me find people that would be willing.  And then I also just went to the local mosque and churches and community groups and started talking to them about the desire to represent immigrants in also a very dignified but also kind of a very intense way.  I really just photographed their eyes, used the eyes in the clichéd expression, “the eyes are windows to the soul.”  And I wanted to develop a dialogue between the viewer and the subject.  And what better way than to concentrate on their eyes?  And you can see all the difference and you can sense the sense of joy or passion or sadness in people’s eyes.  And I think it’s been an expressive and successful exhibit from that point of view.

Jo Reed: When you went to churches and particularly when you went to the mosque, how were you received?

Joe Standart: Well, I have to admit that I was a little nervous. I didn’t know how I would be perceived or how my request would be taken, my request, looking for volunteers.  And I was lucky to make a couple of connections to mosque members, who introduced me to the head of the mosque, who was very, very welcoming and very desirous of being included in the project and to be a participant.  I think they are understandably sensitive about how they’re perceived and I think they really are wanting to be as part of the overall community and contributing members as they can.

Jo Reed: Now, let’s talk about the photographs themselves.  You mentioned, they’re just of the eyes, they’re on empty storefront windows. Talk about the size that we’re talking about and how many there are, and the map of it.

Joe Standart: Right. I designed the exhibit to start at the top of one of the main streets, State Street.  It’s in front of the courthouse and the Garde theater.  And there’s a spectacular library with just beautiful stone arches.  That’s how people enter New London, through that intersection.  My thought was to have my leading portrait there with the eyes looking down into the center of the city.  And then from there, I just went down the two main streets filling up empty storefront windows.  And they measure on average seven feet by about fifteen feet.  They’re—

Jo Reed: And it’s of somebody’s eyes.

Joe Standart: And they’re just of <laughs> they’re just of somebody’s eyes. So you can imagine, it’s a pretty intense encounter. When you come up to the individual portraits. From across the street I think they’re very engaging and up close and personal. They really invite a reflective moment wondering what that person had been through and what like, shared, experiences you might have.

Jo Reed: This show opened in the beginning of July.  Were all of the subjects at the opening?  It must’ve been like the United Nations!

Joe Standart: <laughs> It really was.  It was, I think we had, a growing number.  We started at three or four hundred and it grew as the unveiling of all of these different portraits proceeded. The mayor gave some welcoming comments and I said a few words, I had all of the murals covered over.  And the subjects helped me unveil their individual portraits, which was really kind of fun.  And the crowd that followed us from portrait to portrait burst into a little applause and the subject would take a bow. It was a wonderful experience.

Jo Reed: We mentioned the breadth of the places that the people you photographed come from, I was really struck by the picture of a woman from Tibet. Who is she?

Joe Standart: She’s a delightful woman that most people in town know as the hostess at the Bangkok restaurant.  She always greets you with a smile and you don’t think she has a care in the world. She came from Tibet 14 years ago to build a better life, to get a better education.  And she is working long hours in the restaurant.  Still has never been able to return to her homeland to see her family. She’s sending money back to support the folks at home.

Jo Reed: There are a number of hopes for this public exhibit. Tell me what they are.

Joe Standart: There are so many layers to public exhibit.  I guess you could start with the artist, me, wanting to have a dialogue, me wanting to have a dialogue with the city, with the individuals. There’s a bringing together of the arts community. Many of the arts community were part of this. So encouraging the arts in this region to grow and flourish, and they’re taking important strides in that area. It’s also developing the reputation of the city as an art center, so people from the region as the press has learned about the exhibit come in, and the attitude towards New London is beginning to shift, or continues to shift, to becoming an art center.  And then there’s the dialogue about the subject of immigrants and immigration and celebrating their contributions to our country and honoring those that have really made great sacrifices, to get here. There’s one gentleman that I photographed before who walked for 17 days to get from his little town in Mexico to get to the border and finally get through.  And he’s arrived at 14, he’s now going through, and becoming a lawyer. The exhibition is not about illegal immigrants, in many ways it’s about celebrating the immigrants who are here in our heritage as a nation of immigrants.

Jo Reed: What has the response been?

Joe Standart: The response has been pretty overwhelming. Certainly the first tier of response, the people who live in the city. As I walk around, I’m approached by almost everybody I encounter with a “thank you,” or, you know, “nice work.” I think they really appreciate the effort that went into creating this kind of an exhibit. It was six months of just solid, concentrated work, finding the individuals, getting the venues, and so on and so forth. The response has been just overwhelming.

Jo Reed: What originally brought you to photography, Joe?

Joe Standart: First off, my mother loved photography. She was quite passionate about it, so that got me interested.  But what really got me into photography was a political science class in college, where we studied different parts of America, from an economic and sociological point of view. And then we went and lived in the places that we studied. So, for instance, I lived with a black auto worker in Detroit and worked on the assembly line.  And I lived with a coal miner in Kentucky, and I worked in the mines and I lived with a hog farmer in Iowa, in Florence.  And Hicks in Scranton, Iowa, and I lived with them and worked on the hog farm.  So mother had given me a camera to take along and record the adventures so I could share it with them.  And every city that I came to, I bought another Kodak “here’s how” book and basically taught myself the rudimentary elements of photography.

Jo Reed: What appealed to you about photography? What did you love about it?

Joe Standart: I love being with people and photographing them in their environment.  And I love the technological aspects of it. Figuring out the f-stops and shutter speeds and then the dark room and all that kind of stuff. I just kept following my nose all along, when I got, when we returned to college, it’s Williams College, I took the basic black and white photography classes and just further fell in love with the whole process, picturing my environment.  And found my way to Alaska and worked for the National Park Service photographing the landscape we were off photographing the distant, most remote areas, and trying to figure out what would be a good park area.

Jo Reed: How old were you then?

Joe Standart: I was 25 and 6 when I was up to Alaska.

Jo Reed: That’s sort of a perfect time to do something like that, isn’t it?

Joe Standart: Alaska was an amazing adventure. I was so lucky to be able to do that. I went up to be a volunteer. I’d heard that there was this opportunity, and I arrived in Anchorage and the Park Service said, “we’re terribly sorry. We have our quotient of volunteers but we can hire you.” <laughs> So as my first job as a photographer. <laughs> Go figure!

Jo Reed: You have a career as a very successful commercial photographer, how did you develop that?

Joe Standart: I returned from Alaska impassioned about the environment, but it didn’t seem to be that there was an opportunity for me to make a real living as a nature photographer. I decided to move to New York City and follow another passion of mine, which is architecture and design, and began photographing that for a number of different organizations. Of course, it took me several years to get my career started. Then went on to start photographing for House & Garden, House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home. And then the commercial extensions of those types of home-related products. Like General Electric Appliances or Sony Television. Viking Range became one of my biggest clients. We did all of their advertising as well as their TV commercials. So I evolved into directing TV as well.

Jo Reed: You did that for, what, 30 years?

Joe Standart: Yup, 30 years. Hard—

Jo Reed: Thirty years.

Joe Standart: Can’t believe it by looking at me can you? <laughs>

Jo Reed: No, I can’t. Over the years since you started photographing, the technology in photography has changed drastically. How do you- that’s your profession, it’s your bread and butter, it’s your art, how do you deal with those changes because they’re monumental

Joe Standart: They are monumental. I bought my first camera in 1972, and I used that same camera until 2000. Nothing changed. The films got a little better, you hoped, and the technology was the same.  And then all of a sudden digital came in and everything changed. And it was a rocky road for a good ten years as the technology had more promise than actual results. But slowly, the technology really came into its own and matured and the digital image became quite spectacular. And now, I think you’ve got to buy a new camera every two or three years or you’re left in the dust, as camera makers make more sophisticated, better technology. The results on the city walls and windows in New London today from this exhibit just blow me away, the quality of the image. The detail from a 35 millimeter frame to a 20 foot long mural is staggering to me.

Jo Reed: Part-two of the tenth anniversary of Portrait of a City is you re-photographing, as you mentioned, the subjects of the first, ten years ago. Tell me, tell me about that decision. Why?

Joe Standart: “Why not?” I guess is the answer. <laughs> About three years ago I was sitting in my studio thinking-- I was looking at some of the old pictures and thinking, “Oh, my God, ten years is about to come upon us.”  And it was such a celebration back then. People were thrilled. The whole city was thrilled. And I thought it really deserved an effort to go back and explore doing a tenth anniversary exhibit. So I came back and I’ve been really overwhelmed with the response. People were eager to do it. It’s been very difficult finding a lot of the subjects, but when I connect, they are just thrilled. It was like the original exhibit happened yesterday. You know, they come into the studio, slap me on the back. They start talking about their experiences back then. They talk about, you know, how their life has changed and what’s happened in the interim, how their kids have grown up, how they’ve grown old. And there is such an immediate bond with these people who essentially are strangers. <laughs> But it’s, it speaks to the power of photography, to communicate and to build bridges.

Jo Reed: That leads so beautifully, to my next question. Which is, I’m very interested in what you think about photography and art in general and the impact it can have on people’s lives, the way they look at themselves, the way they look at their city.

Joe Standart: The power of photography really cannot be overestimated.  It’s an extremely subtle medium in that you can think that you’re doing just, “Oh, I’m just doing, taking some nice portraits,” but they have a huge impact on the viewer.  And you can see it in other technology advances, the iPhone and the selfie.  And you can just see how people react to seeing images of themselves and their neighbors, their friends.  It communicates where people are today, what their dreams are, where they want to be in life or in the world.  So to purposefully use photography to build bridges is, it’s a very powerful tool, and as you pointed out earlier, it’s a huge responsibility on the part of the artist to approach the subject with a sense of dignity and purpose.  And the impact it has on the city and the environment in which the photographs are an exhibit like this is seen, is immense.  We’ve talked about it a little bit but it starts with how the individuals see themselves.  And then it’s how the city sees themselves.  And we are a city of immigrants, we are a city of artists.  We are proud of who we are, and it invites an improved economy.  Studies have been done showing that visitors to a public art exhibit spend something like 30 dollars per person.  So if you have 1,000 people visiting an exhibition, that’s a lot of help for the local businesses.  So it’s very much of an economic catalyst.  And I think also, we’ve talked about this a little bit, the word democracy is always in my mind, because I really see building bridges between people.  I hope my work, and it does, I’ve seen it happen, people start talking to one another.  And that is the basic democratic process of people sharing ideas, of building something together.

Jo Reed: It’s a fabulous exhibit and I’m glad I came here to see it, so thank you, Joe.

Joe Standart: Thank you, it means a lot to us in New London that you’ve made that effort.

Jo Reed: My pleasure. That’s photographer Joe Standart. WE ARE- A Nation of Immigrants is on display in New London until December 1.  For more information go to PortraitofAmerica.org.  You can read an essay Joe recently wrote about the exhibit at Inkct.com. You’ve been listening to Art Works. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Using empty storefront windows as his gallery, Standart exhibits “WE ARE- A Nation of Immigrants” in the heart of New London, CT.