As a kid growing up in Richmond, Michael Simon skated half pipes and hung out at punk shows photographing his friends and capturing the raucous bliss of their teenage moments. But after high school, he couldn’t wait to leave the city. “I had no thoughts of ever moving back to Richmond,” he told me over coffee at Urban Farmhouse in Scott’s Addition. Then, about two years ago while Michael was staying with a friend in the city, he had a serendipitous change of heart. “We were walking through the alleys of Bellevue on our way to the wine store,” he said as he spread his fingers out as if painting the scene in the air between us. “It was twilight and there was a treehouse, and it was just like, oh my god, this is so beautiful. I wanted to get my family and stay here.” Having rekindled his love affair with Richmond after a decades-long absence—one which encompassed a successful editorial and portrait photography career in New York City—Michael spent this past summer turning his camera lens towards the day-to-day characters in his local community. This series of documentary-style portraits, entitled One Love: LGBT Families, will be on display this month at The Valentine museum and aims to capture the everyday moments of LGBT-identifying families who live in Richmond.
The original concept for One Love was conceived by Michael, Katherine O’Donnell of Richmond Region Tourism, and Domenick Casuccio, Director of Public Relations and Marketing at The Valentine. The three had previously collaborated on a same-sex wedding giveaway in partnership with OutRVA. While doing press for that event, Domenick had what Michael described as a “light bulb” moment. They already had an program called It’s All Relative, a photo series documenting Richmond families throughout history, scheduled for the end of 2016. Domenick mused, “What if we worked together and did an LGBT family portrait project to run alongside this other Richmond family show?” From that original spark, the wheels started turning: Michael signed on to take portraits of twenty LGBT families from the Richmond community, while Katherine offered sponsorship and oversight through Richmond Region Tourism, and Domenick provided a venue at The Valentine.
The first step was to send out a city-wide call asking families to participate. Over fifty families ended up responding to online solicitations. In choosing which ones would be photographed, Michael said one criteria was particularly important: an all-encompassing definition of family. “From the very beginning, we decided that we wanted to open up the definition of what family is,” he explained. “It doesn't have to be your biological mother or sister. It can be whatever your interpretation of family is. It can be you and your sibling, or you and your husband, or you and your polyamorous family.” That sense of inclusivity, allowing the normalcy of these relationships to be illuminated, was central to the project.
When photographing the families, Michael attempted to capture each group in their natural state, typically in a space where they liked to spend time or had special meaning to them. “One family loved the Lee Bridge Pedestrian Walkway and we shot there,” he said. For another family, “We shot at the Capitol building because they were involved in the Bostic case that ushered in marriage equality in Virginia.” Another goal for the project was that each photo would share the same aesthetic sensibilities. Michael explained, “I wanted everyone to be facing the camera, standing together in a formal portrait. Sort of American Gothic-y.” He continued, “I wanted the family to look strong. I wanted everyone to be standing tall and looking proud, expressing just a little glimpse about them.” He paused for a minute, then finished his thought, “I feel like if I did it right, that'll shine through.”
Of course, formal portraits that include small children require a bit of finesse. One of Michael’s favorite photographic moments came from a particularly fidgety subject. “There was this one family,” he recalled, “I photographed them in Pocahontas State Park. They were great and the kids were great. I think the oldest kid was three-and-a-half, he was just this sharp little guy.” He took a sip of his coffee and continued, “So I finally got him to stand in one place, but he was just too involved in everything to point his face at me and smile. He grabbed his mother's dress and put it in his mouth and looked away.” Grinning, he finished his story, “It was this quirky little funny moment that I just loved. When I took the picture, I was like, ‘That's it. That's the one!’”
Endearing moments like these are recognizable to any family. With One Love, Michael aims to highlight these similarities of experience. At the end of our conversation, he explained his ultimate goal for the project, “I just wanted a document, a snapshot of LGBT families in Richmond right now. And surprise,” he said with a wry smile, “they look really familiar.”
One Love: LGBT Families will be on display at The Valentine on from December 1 through September 4, 2017. An artist reception will be held on January 11, 2017. To learn more, visit thevalentine.org.