BAM Column: Photographer M.J. Alexander showcases Oklahoma children in book “Portrait of a Generation”
From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
Photographer captures Oklahoma children in new book
“Portrait of a Generation” features youngsters from across the Sooner State
Celebrated photographer M.J. Alexander grandly showcases our state’s promising future in her “Portrait of a Generation — The Children of Oklahoma: Sons and Daughters of the Red Earth.”
Or as I like to call it, Brenna’s book. After all, it is dedicated to my little girl.
While much of my 2010 was focused on bringing my daughter into the world, Alexander spent much of the year on a mission to share the children of the Sooner State with the world. Along with her images of more then 250 Oklahomans — primarily children from newborns to college freshmen — her limited edition art book includes family genealogies, state history and personal stories from the youngsters.
“It stars the kids and it has their portraits; it stars Oklahoma because it has the environment. Even if you can’t see Oklahoma — some of the shots are more scenic than others — even if it’s a close-up of cowboy (belt) buckles, you see Oklahoma reflected back in that,” she said. “You have the kids’ words, what they think about life, what their philosophies are, like in your case, what are their families’ hopes for them, which is really heartening when you see these families already looking forward to the future.”
For the forward-looking follow-up to her 2007 book “Salt of the Red Earth,” which featured Oklahoma centenarians, the acclaimed photographer embarked on a quest to feature the youngsters who will determine Oklahoma’s future. Her mission took her more than 11,000 miles to 50 towns and cities, from Cimarron County to Beaver’s Bend and Mangum to Picher.
Even when she stayed in one city, Alexander often found youngsters living in vastly different worlds: She photographed Baylee Blain Henry, 13, who is youngest daughter of Brad and Kim Henry, at the Governor’s Mansion; bombing survivors Rebecca Ann Denny, 17, and Brandon James Denny, 19, at the Oklahoma City National Memorial; and solemn Sa’Nya Kathryn-Lovella Clark, 2, at Sister B.J.’s Food Pantry.
“It was a challenge to get a mix of people who have been here a long time and a short time, people of different ages, people of different life views, of different socioeconomic status, but not to be so concerned with the little parts that you miss the big picture,” she said. “The challenge at the beginning was to make it representative without being so concerned with demographics … and at the end it was ‘How can I cut any of these wonderful kids?’”
From American Indian dancers at the Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City and intrepid fishermen at the Okie Noodling Festival in Pauls Valley to artists performing at the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain and belt buckle-boasting champions at the International Finals Youth Rodeo in Shawnee, she tried to highlight the range of interests, ethnicities and philosophies of our state’s youth.
The project also took her to my hospital room at Integris Baptist Medical Center and my Del City front lawn.
A few weeks before I started maternity leave in June, Alexander sent me an e-mail about her “Portrait of a Generation” plans. She asked if I would do a column about the project in the hopes of finding interesting children for the book. One of her goals was to feature a newborn, and once the column ran, she asked if I would be interested in letting her take photos of my new baby when she arrived.
My husband, Patrick, and I agreed, and when we went into the hospital June 25 for my C-section, the photographer waited with my parents and sons. When Patrick introduced our family to Brenna Faire McDonnell, Alexander snapped away, capturing precious moments that happened while I was still in the operating room.
With her eye on taking a portrait against the Oklahoma landscape, Alexander came to our home the day after we were released from the hospital to take more pictures. As my husband held our 100-hour-old daughter aloft in our yard against a stormy, uncertain sky, the artist got the shot that made the book. Along with the portrait, Brenna’s two-page spread includes a brief genealogical history — she is a sixth-generation Oklahoman on my side — and my writings about my hopes for my children’s futures.
Alexander dedicated the book to Brenna and John James Ruffin, whom she photographed taking his first breath, and included a small picture of my then-3-year-old son Gabe holding his newborn sister on the dedication page. Photographing the two 2010 babies were the most indelible moments of her memorable year.
“To me, the most vulnerable anybody is, is when you’re giving birth, so to let somebody in on that moment is mindboggling,” she said. “Brenna will never remember this whole thing, but I will remember her my entire life.”
While the book may be dedicated to two babies, Alexander’s “Portrait” is a gorgeous gift to all Oklahomans. And I’m not just saying that because my girl is in it.
“Portrait of a Generation”
M.J. Alexander’s limited edition art book “Portrait of a Generation — The Children of Oklahoma: Sons and Daughters of the Red Earth” is for sale at Full Circle Bookstore, JRB Arts at the Elms, Painted Door and other independent shops. It is also available online at www.amazon.com and www.sliceok.com/portrait.
The book is priced at $65, and $10 from each book is donated to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County.
A celebration honoring the young stars of the book and unveiling large-scale portraits from the book is planned for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 415 Couch Drive.