It was in 1978, during my first summer of making portraits while using an 8×10 inch large format camera, that I found myself drawn to photographing redheads.
I have often been asked; ‘why redheads,’ and I’ve often felt it was because in summer redheads seem to bloom in the sun more gloriously than the rest of us. But it also might have been my living far out on the tip of Cape Cod, surrounded by all the blue light of sea and sky, which made me pay more attention to the flamboyant qualities of redheads. Their hair and the exotic markings of their skin in sunlight became even rosier and more astonishing in that blue atmosphere.
Redheads, like film itself, are transformed by sunlight. It seems natural to me now that I would have paid attention to this new phenomenon as it appeared within the larger subject of the Cape itself. After making more than 50 portraits that first month, in which at least 30 were of redheads, I understood that this was an impulse to be taken seriously.
I ran an ad in the local paper, the Provincetown Advocate: “REMARKABLE PEOPLE! If you are a redhead or know someone who is, I’d like to make your portrait, call….” They began coming to my deck, bringing with them their courage and their shyness, their curiosity and their dreams, and they shared their stories of what it was like to be a redhead. They spoke of the painful remembrances of childhood, the violations of privacy and name calling-“Hey, red,” “freckle face,” “carrot head.” They also shared with me their sense of personal victory at having overcome this early, unwanted celebrity, and how like giants or dwarfs or athletes they had finally grown into their specialness and by surviving had been ennobled by it. You could say that they had been baptized by their own fire, and that their shared experience had formed a “blood knot” among them. I had begun making portraits with the intention of photographing ordinary people. But redheads are both ordinary and special.
Their slender slice of the genetic pie accounts for only 2 or 3 percent of the world’s population. As different as redheads are in terms of nationality and religion, they often give the appearance of a strong familial connection.
My way of making portraits is not by getting down on my hands and knees, nor climbing high on a ladder, nor getting into bed with a celebrity, but simply standing eye to eye with anyone has found their way to me, young or old. I need only one or two sheets of film and the patience to see it through.
This new edition of ‘Redheads’ will have a number of new and previously unseen portraits.