Taking pictures is more than a craft or creative pursuit for fine-art photographer Maria Ellen Huebner of Logan. It’s a way to connect with people.
During the coronavirus pandemic, personal connection has become harder than ever, but Huebner has devised a way to bridge the gap created by social distancing with a series of photo shoots she calls the Portrait Porch Project.
The photos show local residents at the entrances and through the front windows to their homes at a time when many are staying home. And Huebner uses her skills as a black-and-white, documentary-style photographer to capture individuals in a straightforward fashion in their natural environments.
In other words, these are not your typical dress-up family portraits where everybody says "cheese." In fact, Huebner tells people not to make any special preparations for her before she shows up at their homes with her old-school Leica Rangefinder camera and her 7-year-old daughter, Olive, who has been serving as her assistant.
In exchange for letting her take their pictures and post them on the internet, Huebner gifts her subjects all of the digital images taken in the session along with a print of her favorite image of them on fine-art paper. In this way the Portrait Porch Project is doing triple duty for the USU fine-art photography instructor: as a documentary series, as a way to connect with people, and as a public service.
“It’s a project purely based on kindness and meeting new people,” Huebner said in an interview with The Herald Journal. “I also hope people are inspired by the images, even though they are very simple. There is a realness about them I want people to walk away appreciating.”
Realness is Huebner’s thing. As a former photojournalist and long-time instructor specializing in creation of black-and-white film images, she counts many “street photographers” and “documentary photographers” among her influences — people like Henri Cartier-Bressen, a one-time Life magazine staffer who pioneered candid picture-taking in the 1930s, and Diane Arbus, who used black-and-white film to take stunning portraits of America's marginalized citizens.
Their work and the work of Huebner's many other camera-toting heroes echo through the porch photographs.
One of her subjects this month, Barbara Hoth of Logan, said she could see the value in Huebner’s no-frills approach to portraiture when looking at the pictures taken of her and her sons, Jaelin and Sebastian.
“I think pictures like hers, that aren’t posed, strip away some of our superficial layers,” Hoth said.
She also noted that the encounter had a positive effect on her sons, who hadn't connected in a while. They wound up sitting together on the front porch swing and talking for some time after the photo shoot.
The genesis of the Portrait Porch Project goes back to late March after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared and USU moved classes online. The change meant Huebner’s students had to shift from film to digital photography.
“When I had my first virtual meeting with them, they were really depressed and didn’t seem very interested in going digital, so I started trying to think of ways I could inspire them.” she said. “I wanted to have something going by the time I’d see them again, so I thought I could start to do these porch portraits and they might get inspired and know that they could do something very small that could become very big.”
The Protrait Porch Project did become big, at least in Cache Valley terms. Huebner has done 37 shoots with local individuals and families. Since she started sharing the photos on Instagram and Facebook, they’ve been widely distributed and talked about on social media, and The Herald Journal received numerous emails and phone calls from community members suggesting an article on Huebner’s work.
Her first few sessions were done with friends, but soon she was connecting with other individuals through word of mouth. She said she treasures the opportunity this has given both her and her daughter to get out of the house and meet new people, albeit at a safe distance.
“I haven’t been to the store or any place else for almost two months, but I’ve actually gone to someone’s house and made images every day,” she said. “It’s helped me keep a sane mind with something to do so I don’t get lost in this strange time.”
Each session involves photos from various spots at the front of people’s homes or dwellings — through the windows, through the front door, on the porch, on the front walk.
“At the end, I pull them away from the porch a bit so you can see the house because I want to show the fact that all these families have a different way of living, and their house is different,” Huebner said. “Not everybody lives on the first floor. Some people live with a lot of people, and some people are solo. I like to show the diversity of people’s lives and their environment.”
Huebner said over the 37 sessions she modified her approach in some ways and came to see each batch of photos as a pictorial narrative.
“It becomes a bit of a story about the family, but created in a really quick period of time (about 30 minutes),” she said. “It’s been fun.”
Huebner hopes to show the photos in a public exhibit at some time in the future.