It was a convivial scene at Richard Beavers Gallery on Saturday. Families arrived at the Brooklyn space cheerful and in matching outfits, young parents stepped in cradling sleeping newborns, while outside, children rushed for packets of Capri-Sun. The vibe was an unlikely one for an art gallery—but only because, for one day, it had been transformed into a professional photography studio for the first-ever Bedstuy Family Photo Day.
Over five hours on August 19, some 50 families were professionally shot at the gallery by six participating photographers. The gallery set up two backdrops on the floor and, in one corner, an instant photo booth by Mbele’s Experience was available for walk-ins or more spontaneous group selfies. The occasion, which coincided with World Photography Day, was the brainchild of Beavers himself, who said he’s had such an event in mind for seven years.
“This is the time to do it,” he told Artnet News outside his gallery, “at a point where I have the resources to give back to the community, just as a way of saying how important they are, that they are included.”
And the community has responded in kind. Pre-registration for photo sessions was fully booked, which didn’t stop visitors from stopping by anyway. The photographers, too, had happily volunteered their time.
Megan Schmidt was one photographer tasked with shooting families, but upon arriving at the gallery, couldn’t resist grabbing a professional portrait of herself with her son.
“I wanted to capture a moment with us, too, because I’m a single mom and I have more photos of him alone than I have of us together from a decent perspective—and one that’s not a selfie,” she said.
In fact, what comes up constantly in speaking to the participants at the event is the significance of the family portrait—that record of ties and connection, if not comaraderie. “The family photo,” said photographer Ian Reid, “is just the people you care about and who are with you on a particular journey.”
Even, or especially, with the accessibility of camera technology, to have an entire family sitting down for a professional session turns the moment into something momentous. And to have a document of such gatherings, said Beavers, is especially resonant for families of color, who formed the majority of the day’s visitors.
“There’s this negative connotation about our communities from the stories that are told in the media on a daily basis,” he said. “But for those of us that grew up in communities of color, we know what the real makeup is—these are close-knit families, there’s kinship.”
It’s why Beavers has been intentional with his space, he said, to use “art as a catalyst” to bring together and uplift the community, particularly one threatened by gentrification. Since its opening in 2007, the gallery has represented Black artists from Lynthia Edwards to Genesis Tramaine, while hosting initiatives including an annual turkey giveaway, internship programs, entrepreneurial classes, and a free barbershop for kids.
“I’ve learned the business of art over time, but for me, it was the whole idea around, ‘Why can’t we have access to art? Why do we have to leave outside of our community to have access to art that’s created by us?’” he said. “That’s why events like Family Photo Day are so important. Art, for me, is about being a positive contributor to the revitalization of a community that I call home.”
For photographer Danielle Degrasse-Alston, Family Photo Day presented her with one of her favorite shoots ever. Unlike her commercial work, she said, the photographs she was taking at the gallery will “hang on [a family’s] wall forever and they’re going to look at it every single day.”
“The fact that I was a part of hopefully making them feel that pride—that they’re going to pass it down from generation to generation—is one of the biggest things I’ve ever done,” she said.
Instead of posing families for their photographs, Degrasse-Alston was also inviting her subjects to position themselves in frame as a way of allowing their family dynamic to play out naturally for the camera.
“It’s how their personality is going to come out—who’s standing next to who, who’s fixing whose hair, who’s the leader of the household, who doesn’t want to be here,” she added. “In those first 30 seconds, I’m getting those nuances of the family and trying to bring that to life.”
One such family she photographed was the Ragophala clan of five who showed up in brilliant reds and yellows. They excitedly posed for a few photos: in one, parents Wéma and PitsiRa sat with their youngest child; in another, their three kids gathered at the direction of their father. The sense that this was a big day was palpable.
“Oh man, I was so excited that this was coming to the neighborhood,” said Wéma, an executive director at IntegrateNYC, an organization aimed at public school integration. “It’s such a good project to bring families together, to honor a day to get everybody in one space, and to be able to hold this moment in time through a picture.”
And what is the family planning to do with their portrait?
“We’ve got a wall where we like to put pictures of our children’s birthdays, so this time we’re going to have one permanent picture,” PitsiRa said.
“We’re going to frame it,” Wéma added. “We’re going to put it front and center.”
“So we can see it every day,” PitsiRa continued.