Most art projects evolve from a kernel of an idea into a full-blown concept, then a formal project with clear parameters. But sometimes, a project unfolds organically, with no final goal until the artists are halfway through.
“Charleston: One City, One Soul” is such a project. It began on a whim. But the two photographers who teamed up soon realized their whim had purpose and substance.
Douglas Carr Cunningham and Iveta Butler, colleagues who work at CunningFox Photography Education, discovered a shared vision and certain strengths in one another to help them realize it.
Their kernel hinged on the common conception of the word “diversity.”
Diversity generally might be sought after, but it implies a collection of differences, Cunningham said. And he didn’t want the photography project to emphasize differences but unity and togetherness instead.
“We are reminding people that this is the Lowcountry they live in,” Cunningham said.
Beginning about a year ago, the pair took a tripod and camera to various locations — Marion Square, Broad Street, the Cistern Yard, Folly Beach, Park Circle — and started photographing passersby. The emphasis was on regular people, though eventually they snapped images of civic leaders, too, and even a celebrity.
Cunningham and Butler went armed with three questions: Where are you going in life? Where are you coming from? What is your favorite thing?
They shot with donated film, mostly rolls of black-and-white Kodak T-MAX. They developed the film and made the prints in the CunningFox darkroom, little by little accumulating images.
Now they have reached their goal of 100, and they’re framing the photos in preparation for a show that runs Tuesday through July 7 at Meeting Street Gallery, 430 Meeting St.
At the foot of each print is a short, often quirky, description of the person. One reads: “Jerry Spencer was noble-minded as usual. He is going back to Europe, he said — France in particular — to get a brand-new set of memories because he is losing his old ones. And his favorite things are women. Yes, he wrote that down.”
Another photograph includes this caption: “Massage Therapist Amanda, from Bonneau, South Carolina, is ready to open her own massage therapy business. While she is looking forward to doing business, all in all, Amanda would rather play soccer.”
Butler hails from Slovakia. She came to Knoxville, Tenn., to learn English and study mass media, with the intention of returning to her hometown of Bratislava with marketable skills.
Instead, she married her husband Jimmy Butler, then came to Charleston in the summer of 2013 “looking for adventure and a place to start a new life.” And when she discovered the possibilities of the darkroom, she found her passion, Butler said.
She met Cunningham when both taught photography at Redux Contemporary Arts Center. As they spoke about how photography could emphasize unity and community, they realized they were on the same philosophical page.
And they complimented one another. He was used to classrooms and, though an experienced photojournalist, had become a bit shy about pointing his camera at strangers. The project gave him an opportunity to break out of his shell, he said.
Butler, instead, was raring to go.
“I felt Iveta had a gift for photographing people she had just met,” Cunningham said. So the collaboration solidified.
Cunningham has lived and worked in the Charleston area since 1986. He is the son of a black father with roots in South Carolina and a mixed-race mother. But he eschews labels such as “African American.”
He joined the Navy, married a Philippine woman, then a white woman with whom he had three daughters, then a woman with a Portuguese background and two daughters of her own. His background and experiences have shaped his inclusive views, he said.
“We shouldn’t be fighting so much, we shouldn’t have so much difference,” Cunningham said.
That’s why this project means so much to him, and to Butler.
“When we started, we didn’t realize how big this was going to get,” he said.
Stan Foxworthy, a partner in the CunningFox venture, worked with Cunningham at the Charleston Center for Photography until they spun away to start their new business at 62 Brigade St.
Though he’s not directly involved with the “One, City, One Soul” project, Foxworthy has been following it closely. “I get to enjoy the fruits of their labor,” he said.
Sandy Tecklenburg, who operates Meeting Street Gallery, said she learned about “One City, One Soul” through Foxworthy.
“I was so moved by the human side of this project,” she said. And the themes of unity and inclusiveness struck a chord with her and her husband John Tecklenburg.
The gallery is playing host; it will not earn any money, she said.
“I just believe in the project so much. I would love to see it as a permanent collection somewhere.”
And the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, Tecklenburg said. It offers a cross-section of Charleston today.
“We can’t change the past but we can change the future,” she said. (We can) listen, grow, have compassion for everybody.”
Taken together, the 100 portraits amount to a visual and textual narrative, a story of sorts about what Charleston is, what it has become.
Butler and Cunningham have pictures of Elease Amos Goodwin, coordinator of the MOJA Festival; Jack Sewell on his last day behind the counter of Jack’s diner; Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin; mayoral candidate John Tecklenburg; Bobby Alvarez of the band Plane Jane; RiverDogs General Manager Dave Eckols; and Bill Murray.
But the vast majority of their subjects, 80 percent or so, were chosen randomly in public spaces. And when they asked each subject the three questions Butler and Cunningham prepared, the photographers made a discovery: “People are looking for peace,” Butler said.