Portraits of patriotic memory

All are invited to a picture-taking session at Fort McHenry

March 23, 2006|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN REPORTER

Calling all patriots -- Fort McHenry wants you!

Beginning tomorrow, filmmaker and photographer Bill Hayward will be stationed at Fort McHenry to kick off a public portrait event called "Patriot Acts" at 10 historic sites in the United States. He will film and interview whoever shows up on what has become a controversial and politicized concept in this country: Patriotism.

Hayward, a 63-year-old photographer in New York, has been touring the country since 2002 in the name of his traveling exhibition and documentary film project called The American Memory Project, of which Patriot Acts will be a part. A former photographer for Andy Warhol, Hayward is known for his magazine portraits of Bob Dylan, former President Ronald Reagan and other public figures.

But more recently, he has turned his camera's eye toward private people, issuing open invitations for subjects to events such as the one at Fort McHenry this weekend.

Hayward's process does not involve just sitting his subject down and taking a picture. He calls his style of photography "collaborative self portraiture." As a high-profile portrait photographer, Hayward became frustrated with always posing his subjects in front of a standard, neutral backdrop. He was tired of controlling the lighting and makeup -- controlling the image. "Basically, it was what I did to you, more than it was you."

Hayward's Memory Project has already taken him to Bunker Hill, Ellis Island, Ground Zero, Gettysburg, Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee.

So, what brings Hayward to Fort McHenry?

"Because it's the birthplace of The Star-Spangled Banner. It's the notion of a defining moment," he says. The setting also fits the current political climate. "What does it mean to be a patriot? I'm engaging whomever in that discussion."

Fort McHenry, the 18th-century fort bombarded by the British during the War of 1812, has not been known for hosting modern photography projects. The national park has its "Living American Flag," "Civil War Days," and "Old-fashioned Fourth of July Weekend!" events, but Hayward's traveling portrait show will be something different.

"It's a little out of the box for us," says park superintendent Gay Vietzke. "But I think it's an exciting opportunity. It's a valid way of engaging our visitors into thinking about the important themes represented here at Fort McHenry."

Fort McHenry has 40 employees, and they, too, can participate in Hayward's project, says Vietzke, who is very familiar with the photographer's work: When she worked at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a touring Hayward took her picture for the Memory Project. She was impressed with his respect for historical places and with his style.

"He has an interesting process," she says.

Since the 1990s, Hayward has taken a more participatory approach to his work: He asks people to create their own backdrops, providing paper, scissors and paint. In 2000, Hayward published a collection of such images called Bad Behavior. More than 120 writers, poets, dancers and choreographers were photographed against their own backdrops: Author and talk show host Al Franken stood with his hand over his heart in front of a map of the United States; New Yorker staff writer Calvin Trillin painted his backdrop with the words: "I always fail tests of the imagination." Others felt inspired to remove their clothes and paint their bodies.

Fear not. You certainly can keep your clothes on tomorrow through Sunday at Fort McHenry when Hayward sets up shop, complete with paint, brushes and paper. He expects to arrive at the national monument around 2 p.m. tomorrow and pick a location -- possibly inside the fort itself.

He has no standard questions for the accompanying interview. He has no rules. He just wants to create a "non-judgmental conversation."

The name of his project alone, "Patriot Acts," has a double meaning: Passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act expanded law enforcement authority for the purpose of fighting terrorism. The federal legislation remains open for debate -- and, perhaps, open to photography.

"I try to get past the knee-jerk reaction to something more personal," Hayward says. "I'm not looking for proclamations -- I'm looking for subtlety."

He has a favorite example. In a 2002 portrait for the Memory Project, Hayward photographed Lt. Pete Campanelli of the New York Fire Department. Campanelli had chosen to write the names of his fallen Squad 18 colleagues from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Maybe it's the lieutenant's uniform, his expression, the scroll in his hand -- or maybe it's every element in the photograph -- but it is a subtle, powerful image. Hayward's subjects are invited to write words to accompany their photos. "It's not about having your picture taken. It's about emotions and sharing some truth," Campanelli wrote.

Bill Hayward plans to photograph at Fort McHenry during its regular hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) through Sunday. Once completed, he hopes to have The American Memory Project -- book, documentary film and traveling exhibit -- on display in time for the 2008 presidential election.

"It's all really about engaging the public in a conversation about who we are," Hayward says. "I'm giving voice to people."

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

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