From Cecile Oreste at danceDC
It’s easy to make assumptions about a group of people based on their appearance, but what happens when you actually get to know them? In 2007 local photographer Matthew Black first caught a glimpse of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in Seattle. After many months of building a trusting relationship with the Sisters, he discovered that there is more than meets the eye.
Matthew Black’s photographic series “The Sisters of the Perpetual Indulgence: Identity Write Large,” is on display through Saturday, Nov. 13, at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery on U Street NW. It is part of his first solo show and FotoWeek DC. Black will be at the gallery on Friday, 5 to 7 pm.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is a non-profit organization comprised of men and women dedicated to community service. Various chapters continue to carry out the mission of the original group based in San Francisco.
Committed to Charitable Causes
Although their outward appearance suggests they are a fringe group of face painted characters poking fun of a conservative institution, their actions show they are a serious and committed social activist organization. The Seattle Sisters have raised more than $50,000 annually from activities in support of local charities and non-profits.
While Black was living in Seattle, he had his first encounter with the Sisters. He admits that the initial attraction to the Sisters was completely superficial. “They are what I’m not,” he said. This intrigue led to friendship, friendship led to understanding, and deeper knowledge of the organization triggered Black’s desire to tell the Sisters’ story through his photography.
Black chose to take studio portraits of the Sisters in both their private and public personas to show that there is more to the Sisters than just their face paint and costumes. Upon seeing a plain-clothes portrait next to the Sister portrait, it’s hard not to wonder which identity is the real one.
Portraits Trigger Self Reflection
In addition, there is an element of self-reflection when looking at the pair of portraits. Black started to wonder which of his identities was his true self.
“I started asking myself, ‘Who am I?’ Am I the husband? The guy at the office? The photographer?” Black said. He hopes the exhibition will prompt the same self discovery in people who view the portraits.
According to Black, the large size of the portraits was very much intentional. “They are larger than life people so I wanted the prints to be bigger than usual,” he said. He also wanted to show the small details that are often airbrushed out of magazine covers. In particular, he talked about wanting to show the whiskers of the men while they were wearing makeup.
From Consultant to Photographer
Black was not always a photographer telling stories through his pictures. Prior to shifting his focus to photography, he worked as a consultant for nearly three decades.
“About seven or eight years ago, that kind of work stopped energizing me,” he said. For the first time, he invested in himself and decided to take a one-week photography workshop.
“It was a powerful week of discovery. It opened a new door, a possibility of doing something different. That was so pivotal,” he said. “It’s exciting to be on the learning curve again. I will always be learning my craft.”
Black hopes to eventually share the story of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in other major markets including Portland, Los Angeles and Chicago. He also is looking into pitching an idea for a book based on the photographs. According to Black, “I’ve taken this on as a mission, a way of using the camera as an agent of change.”