Washington area photographers Chuck and Pat Bress, visiting San Diego at the time, remarked to each other that the woman seemed somewhat better groomed than the other street people they had encountered.
Funny, they thought. Then they went on about their business.
But that evening, back at their hotel, a strange coincidence.
"We put on the television," Chuck recalled, "and there she was being interviewed."
The woman, maybe 35 or 40 years old, said she was a CPA. She told the interviewer that she found the life of an accountant so stressful that ultimately she gave it all up to join that group of people we tend to categorize with one word: homeless.
Chuck filed the experience away for the better part of a decade. Then two winters ago, he found himself with some time to kill in downtown Washington and became aware once more of the small army of the dispossessed who inhabit our city, if not always our consciousness. Watching their figures coming into and out of view in the billowing clouds from the steam grates, Chuck thought back to that CPA of the streets in sunny San Diego. Something in him said he should be making pictures, and thus began the documentary photography project that has resulted in the current exhibition "A Grate Life." It is a somber yet sensitive portrayal of the men (and occasionally women) who exist in uneasy juxtaposition with the rest of us as we all seek to get through each day in the nation's capital.
In the course of this still-continuing self-assignment, Chuck said he became aware of many words other than homeless to describe the people he came to know over the course of two years. Words like jobless, aimless, nameless, voiceless, spiritless, defenseless.
If there is no joy in Chuck's well-printed photographs, there is no condescension either. If, as one of Chuck's friends noted, "most people will not look the grate people in the eye," Chuck went to the opposite extreme: not only encountering these street people but befriending them to the point where most felt comfortable enough with this visitor from another world to let him photograph theirs.
And that doesn't just happen. You don't make pictures this good by being a photo-sniper: all stealth and long lens. It takes equal parts skill and compassion.
Chuck and his wife Pat, both excellent shooters, have been photographic partners for more than 20 years. Chuck, now a fulltime photographer, recently retired after a long career as a periodontist. A man of many parts, he also is a musician. It was his dental training that led him to photography [making macro photos of his patients' teeth and gums], and his love of music, especially jazz, that led to his and Pat's greatest artistic achievement to date: a place in the permanent photographic collection of the National Museum of American History. In fact, until the "Grate Life" project, Chuck and Pat Bress had been best known for their huge (more than 3500-image) archive of live jazz performances in and around Washington. That archive, which the Bresses have bequeathed to the Smithsonian Institution, includes some priceless images of jazz legends from around the country and the world, including shots from the first joint performance of the phenomenally talented Marsalis brothers.
The other day I viewed Chuck's show at the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church and, while I took in his images of the people on the grates, I asked the nuts-and-bolts questions any photographer might ask a colleague.
"I'd take pictures anytime I saw steam," Chuck said with a laugh. He added, though, that he never wanted to be seen as exploiting people who had been dealt such a short hand, and began to go down to the grates laden with clothing to distribute.
"OK, who wears a ten-and-a-half?" he'd say, handing out pairs of his old shoes. Pointing to one picture, Chuck noted, "That's my hat."
Deliberately to keep anyone from saying he paid for his access, Chuck refused to give money, though he frequently distributed meals as well.
He would always ask permission before he shot. "I said I have an assignment to photograph people in Washington, DC," Chuck noted. Granted, it was a self-assignment, but the important thing was that he asked permission first.
Occasionally, someone would say "why do you want my face?" and here Chuck relayed a smart bit of persuasive psychology that he learned from his wife.
"Nobody wants to hear that they have an 'interesting' or 'photogenic' face," Chuck quoted Pat as saying. "You should say they have a nice face."
And that gentle bit of interaction worked almost every time and helped Chuck be viewed, not as a stranger, but as the Picture Man.
For most of his work Chuck used a medium format Mamiya 7 rangefinder camera and Tri-X film and worked exclusively by available light. The big 6x7cm negative on the Mamiya allowed him to capture some beautiful detail that translated into some really gorgeous prints, almost all made on Ilford fiber-based multigrade paper.
One such image shows a black man staring into Chuck's lens, wrapped in a blanket and wearing a baseball cap. The cap bears the legend "The White House" and the man told Chuck it had been given to him by a White House staffer. What struck me about the image aside from its starkness and power was how the cap and the blanket brought me back in time. The cap looked like a Union campaign hat during or just after the Civil War, and the photograph evoked one that might have been made of a black soldier in the Union army or of a member of the famed "Buffalo Soldiers," the all-black cavalry that was formed during the postwar westward expansion.
That the image was made today only underscored its timelessness.
A Grate Life, photographs by Chuck Bress. Through June 16. Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, 6601 Bradley Blvd., Bethesda, Md. 9:30-4:30 daily. It is best to call the church in advance to assure access: 301-365-2850. Chuck Bress may be reached at 301-765-6275.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at email@example.com.