By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — In one photograph, Stephan Draper — “Dr. Proctor” to a generation of Middlebury College students — looks off beyond the frame of the portrait, his gaze downcast and solemn. In another, Bristol resident and 20-year employee at the college Deborah Hotte smiles, but shyly. And in a third, 19-year-old Flo Howell bares her teeth in an exaggerated grimace, her eyes wide behind thick-framed glasses.
These portraits hang in stark black-and-white contrast on the exposed brick walls of the 51 Main at the Bridge café and bar on Main Street in downtown Middlebury.
It’s here that Angela Evancie, a Weybridge native and a senior at Middlebury College, has installed the 16-portrait exhibition she’s dubbed “Recognition,” an ode to the eclectic, diverse and often overlooked dining services staff at the college.
“I think the default for students in the dining hall is not to acknowledge the staff,” Evancie said, glancing over the faces of employees who students typically encounter three times a day over meals in the dining halls. “This is my way of recognizing the staff.”
All in all, Evancie photographed 16 dining hall employees in a makeshift studio in the Old Stone Mill, a downtown Middlebury building where college students can pursue creative, non-academic projects. There, she photographed the employees in front of a simple, unadorned white backdrop, under a set of makeshift lights that Evancie rigged up herself.
Evancie chose to focus her first collection of portraits on dining hall employees in part because she had a personal connection to the staff. Her younger brother, Leo, worked for the Atwater Dining Hall while in high school, and the two overlapped at Middlebury — Evancie as a student, and Leo as an employee — for a few years. That, she said, made her pay more attention to dining hall employees from the get-go.
But Evancie also felt that, for a group of college staff that students come into contact with three times a day at the college, dining hall employees were often overlooked, particularly those who worked “behind the scenes” in food services.
The title for the project — “Recognition” — jumped out at Evancie as the perfect way to sum up the exhibit, which will be on display at 51 Main until the end of the month.
“It came to me as a word with so many meanings,” she said. “Some of these people we do recognize. Others we don’t, and the point is that we’ll recognize them in the future. There’s also the element of appreciation, and paying tribute to the people whose work you appreciate.”
She did worry, diving into the project, about the potential for exploitation in these photographs, particularly when she photographed a few of the dining services employees with mental disabilities. But the photo shoots ended up playing out as conversations between Evancie and her subjects, conversations that often came back to the territory they shared as natives in the same county.
“It was really easy for me to talk about my childhood, because it had taken place in the same place as their childhood, or where their children were growing up,” she said. “Some of us were separated by one degree of separation. Coming from this place made it easier to connect with them.”
Still, the photo shoots weren’t always effortless; Evancie said that sometimes the most animated subjects and conversationalists froze when she picked up her Minolta camera.
Evancie has been making photographs with this same camera since she was a sixth-grader at the Weybridge Elementary School. During a year-long independent learning project that year, she shadowed Addison Independent photographer Trent Campbell for a day, shooting alongside him throughout the county and then tagging along for a trip to the darkroom.
She’s been photographing ever since, she said, though Evancie’s academic pursuits have led her to study English and geography.
For the “Recognition” project, Evancie’s first foray into studio portraiture, she spent about a half-hour with each of her subjects, shooting one roll of film per subject. Looking back over some rolls, she said, the final portrait jumped out at her right away, while others required a little more deliberation.
“I tried to choose the (photo) that most closely matched the impression that person had made on me,” she said, “and tried not to choose one that portrayed them in a way that I didn’t feel was truthful.”
Kit Quesnel, the dining room manager at one of the college’s three dining halls, appears in one of Evancie’s portraits. Quesnel’s shy about the photograph, protesting that she’s “not very photogenic” — but her bashfulness aside, she said the dining staff truly appreciated Evancie’s gesture.
“It just made us feel really proud to have her take our pictures,” Quesnel said. “It was just nice because we all felt that showed appreciation for us. She had all kinds of people from all walks of life.”
A few photographs down from Quesnel’s portrait is a goofy, almost clownish shot of Director of Dining Services Matthew Biette. But Biette was game for the photo shoot — something he dubbed a “very different” experience.
“What she was trying to represent was people in their regular lives, the lives that (students) don’t see,” Biette said. That, Evancie explained, is why she asked employees to wear their street clothes instead of their dining services uniforms.
“My hat goes off to Angela,” Biette said. “She did a great job.”