Homeless Portraits Focus on People, not Poverty

"Richard" by Tasha French

Samuel Lester’s Nostos art gallery debuted at November’s First Saturday Art Crawl, hosting a grand opening exhibition of photography by Contributor founder Tasha French Lemley. Lemley’s portraits of Nashville’s homeless reach beyond her seven years of heading the street newspaper to include more than a decade of documenting our neighbors on Nashville’s streets.

The photographs in Sans Houses aren’t the kind of well-meaning presentations one finds in community galleries and charitable publications. Unlike those collections, Sans doesn’t project nobility on its homeless subjects or play on the heartstrings of its audience. These striking images of striking faces offer a matter-of-fact perspective from inside of one of Nashville’s most diverse communities, leaving the viewer to glean their own meanings from these glances, grins and grimaces.

“Richard” is a close-up snap of the eponymous homeless man whose beard, long hair and worn face give this image the feeling of a still from a Sergio Leone film – Richard even resembles a more handsome version of cowboy casting staple Jack Elam. Reinforcing his tough guy looks, a quote on the picture’s exhibition label lists Richard’s greatest accomplishment as “…I’m still alive – as long as I’ve been on the streets.”

Contemporary homelessness means being treated like an outlaw for not having a place to live – as The Contributor covered in their recent “Criminal” issue. Images from that issue are also on display in Sans. These profiles picture homeless people at the spots where they were arrested. “Michael” sits next to the public bench where he was arrested for Obstructing a Passageway. “William” was nabbed sitting under an overhang by what appears to be a loading dock gate. “I was just trying to get out of the rain,” the gallery label explains.

Beyond the threat created by laws that make it illegal to be poor, a life on the streets is one of grinding poverty and pervasive neglect that inevitably results in injury, sickness and even death. Born in the middle of the night, on 2nd Avenue, in downtown Nashville, “Cherokeewolf” pictures a dark-haired baby boy, snuggling with a Mickey Mouse doll under a fuzzy blue blanket in a hospital bed. The child made it safely to the facility when a passing limo driver assisted with the birth, tying his shoelace around the baby’s umbilical cord. The child later died in that hospital, beneath that blue blanket and the photograph captures his baptism shortly before the machines that were keeping him alive were turned off.

If Cherokeewolf had lived, what kind of life would he have had in Nashville with no home? A pair of portraits in Sans Houses speak to long-lived lives on the streets. “David” spent 40 years living without a place to live. The photograph in the show pictures him after he’d managed to secure a home following decades without one. David wears a beatific expression and a bushy beard beneath a black cowboy hat – one part cowboy, one part Catholic saint, the image’s label notes that David died this past May.

“Betty” is currently homeless. Her image in Sans sets her piercing, frosty blue eyes against the crimson of the red bandanna she has tied in her hair. Betty appears to be an older woman with lines at the corners of her eyes and her smile. The portrait is sharp and saturated but the background is allowed to blur into blobs of yellow and green. These photographs aren’t about how our streets define these people. They’re about these people who define our streets.

Nostos is open by appointment and on Saturdays from 3 P.M – 6 P.M. There will be a special showing on November 19 from 7 – 9 P.M. This review was originally published in The Contributor. 

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About Joe Nolan

Joe Nolan is the visual arts editor. He is a poet, musician, artist and critic who distills the city's gallery scene from Nashville's east side. Find out more about his projects at joenolan.com. (Photo of Joe Nolan by John Rogers)