A portrait a day

It was bad enough, that Sunday in February of 2008, when photographer Larry Strung spent the whole afternoon looking for, but failing to find, anyone who would agree to be shot. Photographically, of course.

Photographer Larry Strung spent a year trolling the streets to capture the faces of residents of Hamilton and the results of his ambitious project are now on display.

HAMILTON, Ont. — It was bad enough, that Sunday in February of 2008, when photographer Larry Strung spent the whole afternoon looking for, but failing to find, anyone who would agree to be shot. Photographically, of course.

When he went out again after supper, determined to fill his quota (one Hamilton person a day, every day, for all of 2008), his wife Monica was not pleased.

Sunday, after all, is the Christian day of rest, a day for family. And Strung, who is a Christian and has a family, remembers it well. That day was one of the hardest challenges of his Hamilton 365 project.

“Connections wouldn’t happen,” Strung says. “I’d approach people and they’d turned away.”

If his wife was displeased when he went back out that cold Sunday evening, she would have been apoplectic if she could have seen him a couple of hours later.

As he trolled the streets in his car, looking for someone, anyone, someone, it turned out, came looking for him. Stopped at a red light, he heard a knocking on his window. And almost before he knew it, he was letting a prostitute into his car.

“The first thing I said to her,” Strung recalls, “was, ’We are not going to have sex.’ I told her about the project and I said, ‘If I can buy you something to eat or drink, I will.’ ”

“She wouldn’t go inside. She didn’t want people to see her. So we went through the drive-thru and drank coffee in the car. ”

“She asked me to pray for her kids. They’d been taken away. She cried for an hour. Then I cried for an hour. I came home and told my wife and she cried for an hour.”

You can see the photograph that Strung took that night at the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s community gallery. The Hamilton 365 show runs until Nov. 8.

It is the first showing of the prints Strung made of those photographs (366, despite the project name, as 2008 was a leap year).

Everyone knows that the taking of a photograph is only the beginning. The picture has to be developed, and that happened for Strung both in and beyond the darkroom.

“I’ve kept in touch with many of the models,” Strung says.

Willie, for instance. A homeless man he met in January 2008. On the streets for 40 years. Orphaned, Willie lived for a time as a boy at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s, N.L.

That’s something Strung found out after visiting with Willie many times after the photograph was taken. Strung made it a point of honour to get prints to his subjects as soon as possible after taking their photographs.

Whenever he went back looking for Kathleen, the prostitute, she wasn’t there.

“I didn’t see her again until that spring. She called out to me as I walked downtown one day. She told me she wanted to get off the streets but didn’t know how. So I went through the Elizabeth Fry Society and got some information but then didn’t see her again for a while. I’ve seen her several times since. She goes through ups and downs.”

But Strung’s project is far from a turning over of stones to see what’s underneath. It is also celebratory, cheeky, solemn, reflective, sunny. In sum, it’s the city in full.

Strung wanted a true cross-section, as his original motive for the project was to counteract some of the prejudices that colour people’s vision of the city.

He says the project has been an incredible experience. Once he got his hamilton365.com website up and running (it’s still there), he was getting as many as 10,000 hits a day, and for a brief period, when his project was mentioned on an American photo blog site, he was getting 100,000.

If nothing else, it’s been a rapid immersion in his adopted city. He only came to Hamilton in 2006 after leaving his Toronto career as an engineer with Magna, the car parts maker.

He would have been running a bicycle repair business here (bicycles are his other passion), but his Toronto friend, whose business he was going to take over, balked when he realized Strung planned to transplant it to Hamilton.

Strung must know how Jim Balsillie feels.

So photography it was. And Hamilton is a richer city for it. The beautifully wrought images in Hamilton 365 create a striking composite.

Ironically, the one sector of the city he had trouble accessing was the steel industry.

He couldn’t get past Dofasco and Stelco guardedness, so he got a shot in the parking lot at National Steel Car.

Feb. 10 wasn’t the only challenging entry on the calendar. There were days he didn’t feel creative. And the day he was sick, so he shot his mail man, through the open door.

“One of the things I love most about Hamilton,” Strung says, “is its lack of pretension.”

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