Zach Begler’s camera goes where most of us fear to look.
“Lens to the Streets,” his debut photo exhibit, looks homeless people right in the eye.
And what he sees and captures is the warmth and humanity of those he meets.
His exhibit is one of three by local artists that open at the Holter Museum of Art with a public reception 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 19.
The people Begler and his camera met lived on Skid Row in L.A., in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, and on the streets of Seattle, Portland and Helena.
In his written artist statement, Begler takes the viewer along with him: “It is about 80 degrees on the corner of Maple & 7th in Skid Row, Downtown Los Angeles, California, during the middle of the week. Raising my Nikon film camera to my face, I hear ‘Yeah Zach! Let’s take some pictures, some with the hat off, some with it on, some sideways!’ Looking through the viewfinder, I see an older man who sits on an ancient, worn-out red office chair next to a chain-link fence that displays a shag carpet, American flags, and a sign that says THIS SIDEWALK IS CLEANED DAILY AT 6AM. ...The man named Old School, who I now call friend, looks directly at my camera with all of his gear in the background, peers into my lens, models for perhaps the first time in his life, and cracks a few jokes. He wears a jersey, jeans, no shoes, smokes a cigarette, and tells me about his life.”
Begler chose a photo project for himself that many an experienced photographer would find daunting. The 22-year-old also chose a demanding medium -- film rather than digital images.
In the Sherman Gallery on Monday, he introduced this viewer to his portraits and people.
One is Rodger. He looks directly into the camera with intelligent and alert eyes. He was an O.G. Blood Gang member who was first initiated into the gang at age 13, later busted for using and selling crack cocaine, sent to prison and has been living on the street ever since he was released.
“This is my whole entire life story,” he told Begler.
Rodger was one of the people that Begler went to check on in October when he returned to Skid Row, where 2,000 to 3,000 homeless sleep on the streets each night.
“She’s sassy,” he said of Tiwanna, a smiling woman in an African dress. She happily posed for a couple photos and later gathered some of her homeless girlfriends for a photo.
Tiwanna lives on the street where her mother died, who was also homeless.
You might also meet Wendell standing on Skid Row with a sign, “Anything Helps.”
He was a photographer in the military during the Vietnam War.
Begler began this photo project in October 2016 and shot most of these photos in 4 months. He chose to use a film camera because he wanted to stay totally engaged with the people he was meeting, rather than fidgeting with a digital camera to check his images.
Film also taught him patience, he said.
Once a lab develops Begler’s film, they also scan the images and give him a digital copy. He uses these to crop and refine the photo before they’re digitally printed poster size for the show.
Somewhere in the midst of meeting these people on the streets, the project “became about them,” said Begler, rather than “about the photos.”
He writes in his artist statement: “I walk the neighborhoods that most people drive through with their doors locked and their windows closed, observe alcohol and crack cocaine abuse, and witness the lives of individuals who are often treated as sub-human. ...Their facial expressions and body language are immensely candid, as if I were just taking photos of family members or friends, which is actually what a lot of them turned out to be.”
“They don’t have a thing and they’re nicest people in the world,” he said. “They are so friendly, so kind.
“I enjoy and love this enough I have to wait tables,” so he can save enough money to return to L.A. this fall.
“I just want to get more and more involved with it.”
Art teacher Katie Knight, who taught Begler photography at Helena High School, said he is a documentary photographer in the tradition of “the concerned photographer.” These photographers spend a long time with each person listening to their stories.
“Zach dignified them with his attention and tried to represent them with that dignity and individuality.” His environmental portraits “document people...in an honest, authentic, respectful way.”