U Street’s buildings and businesses may give the neighborhood its eclectic image, but it’s the people inside those spaces who convey the personality. Tom Wolff has captured that essence in his exhibit “The U Street Portrait Project,” at the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts. The photographer, who has lived in the area since 1973, created a showcase of 88 images of business owners and neighbors. He did a similar project for the Brentwood Art Center in Mount Rainier and in an apartment building in New York. Wolff began the U Street project in June. Here, he talks about dealing with rejection:
It was really, really hot [when I started]. I couldn’t do it ’cause basically I’m confronting absolute strangers and I’m trying to get them to have their picture taken, and it’s 100 degrees, things like that. It’s sort of like being those little kids on the subway who are trying to sell you a chocolate bar. Most people aren’t really interested. Anyone who would cooperate was very cooperative.
I did a similar [project] in an apartment building in New York, and I learned that the people that you photograph may or may not like their pictures, and they may or may not sort of like you. But the people you don’t photograph? They don’t like you! So in a certain way you don’t make enemies . . . but you miss people, and after it’s done there’s so many obvious people that you obviously missed. But you just can’t do it forever.
I, in a way, think that’s a useful skill, to be able to look at rejection and just shrug your shoulders and not take it too personally. Although sometimes when I’ve gotten two rejections in a row I just have to go home.
Everyone knows the people who own Ben’s Chili Bowl. Everyone knows Virginia and Ben Ali. They were the first place I actually went to, and I just walked in and talked to someone who was cooking and he said, “No, you can’t take my picture.” It was kind of crowded, it was the absolutely wrong time, and I knew that it would be okay, and I had photographed Marion Barry eating lunch a couple of years ago, and I spent two days with Marion Barry and we went to lunch there. I just made a print of Marion Barry at his table and sent it in to the owner, and then he called me right away and said, “Oh, come on in.”
And so we’re out on the street with all the family, they were all there. The mother, Virginia, wanted to do a family portrait because it’s so rare that they’re actually all in one spot. So we did that. And then people on the street — other people I’ve been trying to get before and who happened [to stop] by [would all say] now I could photograph them. It was like an approval.
[For the exhibit] I was hoping the viewers would be mostly people in the pictures and that they would meet other people who’d come to the opening, and maybe something would click and maybe have a sense of community. I think that’s the idea — to build sort of a sense of community.
At Smith Center for Healing and the Arts until Dec. 17. An opening reception will be held Nov. 4 from 7 to 9 p.m. The center is at 1632 U St. NW Gallery hours: Wednesday through Friday 11 a.m. -5 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. Visit smithcenter.org for more.