By mid-April, the pandemic had been raging for a month, and Scott Streble’s work as a nonprofit photographer had mostly dried up. His south Minneapolis neighborhood was eerily quiet, people tucked inside their houses, front doors closed.
Streble’s partner, Jessica Bessette, thought this was the perfect time for Streble to start a new photo project— photographing families in front of their homes.
Streble was dubious. So-called “front porch portraits” had been done before, and he worried that the idea wasn’t fresh. But the more he thought about it the more he decided that doing the project during a pandemic made sense. When did people need a sense of community and connection more than during a time of forced isolation?
So he put a message on his neighborhood Nextdoor message board, “and I was shooting photos that very same day,” he said. “And then word kind of spread.”
Since then he has shot more than 600 portraits throughout the Twin Cities and into Wisconsin, about 240 of which he has collected in a self-published book, “Front Porch Portraits: Staying Apart Together.”
“It seemed like a good thing to be doing during the time of COVID, a way to give back a bit,” Streble said. “I don’t charge for the photos, so at the very least everyone would have a free family portrait.”
He saw the portraits as a way to mark this very strange period. “Maybe I didn’t think of that right away, but it certainly manifested as I shot them,” he said. “We’re all in this together. In every one of these houses there are people.”
He allotted about 15 to 30 minutes per portrait, which he scheduled by neighborhood. “I had a huge spreadsheet,” he said. “I would just show up, set up my light, knock on the door, and shoot it in a couple of minutes.”
For the portraits, people dressed however they chose — Streble hoped for what he called “quarantine wear,” for people to step out of their front doors wearing what they normally wore during the shutdown. And while a few people dressed up (one guy came out in black tie), that is mostly what people did.
What marks these photos is the neighborly feeling — people are barefoot, or in flip-flops, in hoodies and T-shirts, hanging out on their front stoops.
“It was surprising how people are so casual about it, which I love, but I think it has to do with the fact that it’s on their porch,” Streble said. “Not a lot of pretense. Sort of, ‘Here we are, go for it.’ ”
There is much diversity in these photos — of family size, of age, of race, of gender. Some people smile. Some fold their arms and look sternly at the camera. A lot of people hold dogs. (There are surprisingly few cats.) A lot of people hold babies.
Some of the subjects are known names — Gov. Tim Walz and his family, for instance, or former Minnesota Viking Carl Eller, or Minneapolis City Council Member Andrea Jenkins. But most are just — folks. Neighbors.
Text is minimal; there are a few quotes from people, but mostly the book lets the photos tell the story. Some people identify themselves with full names, some just by family name, some with just their first name. Some have their hands in their pockets. Some hold hands.
But they are all families, even families of one, and they are all in front of their own front door.
“I think it’s a way to connect community,” Streble said. “It gives people a chance to feel like they’re part of a bigger thing. They are surely connected to all the other people I’ve photographed. It makes people feel good, too, it gives them kind of a buzz, it records history. You don’t often have a chance to realize you’re recording history in real time.”
Streble paid for the project and the book with a Kickstarter campaign that raised $17,000 — a break-even amount, he said.
Though the pandemic rages on, the project has mostly ended with the publication of the book and a resurgence of Streble’s paid work. But he said he discovered a lot from the neighborhood portraits he took.
“I learned that people are so optimistic,” he said. “It was so refreshing. They’re ready for this to be over, certainly, but they’re eager, they want relationships, they enjoy our chats, and sometimes it was hard to leave, to move on to my next photo.”
At the end of the book, on page 113, the final portrait is of Streble and Bessette, arms around each other, smiling, in front of their own front door. Who took that image?
“Self-timer,” Streble chuckled. “Classic.”
Laurie Hertzel • @StribBooks
Look at the photos: mnporchportraits.com
Buy the book: scottstreble.com. $65.
Laurie Hertzel has worked at the Star Tribune for more than two decades as an editor and writer. Previously, she was a writer and editor at Minnesota Monthly magazine and at the Duluth News-Tribune.
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