Exhibition of Blair photos explores joy in poverty

The list of events and moments at which James P. Blair has had the privilege to be present, is nothing short of astounding. In 1955 with camera in hand, Jim was present as a lieutenant JG (junior grade) assisting the transport of refugees out of North Vietnam aboard a U.S. Navy ship. Once again a civilian, the photographer witnessed and recorded the exodus of Hungarian refugees fleeing communism and the ocean explorations of Jacques Cousteau off the coast of Brazil. As a staff photographer for the National Geographic Society, Blair photographed the funerals of President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
He captured on film developments in the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Blair considers himself “the single most fortunate photographer on the face of the globe.” Through the guidance and influence of his most consequential three mentors, Blair seemed to frequently land in just the right moments in time. He credits these men, Roy Stryker, Aaron Siskind, and Harry Callahan for not only teaching him, but also guiding him to the right connections and opportunities, that would ultimately send him on a lifelong journey all over the world, to document innumerous historical developments of the past six decades.
In 1954, Blair’s Institute of Design teacher Siskind suggested Blair focus his senior project on photographing a family on behalf of the Chicago Housing Authority. In an effort to address the issue of urban decay, the Housing Authority was building new high-rise apartments that would hopefully provide a cleaner, safer living environment for Chicago’s predominantly black families. While the family of Armister Henton awaited news that they would be given a space in one of the new buildings, Blair documented their daily life.
For two months, Blair captured the routines of daily life at the Henton household. He would quietly observe and photograph, sometimes almost as if he was on the outside looking in through the window; which in a way he was. Blair captured the family’s interactions poetically, instinctively knowing exactly when to open his shutter to collect those moments of warmth, tenderness, devotion and joy on film. 
Blair recognized the Hentons no longer as just subject matter for an assignment, but rather with an empathetic eye for his fellow citizens, he knew he needed other people to see this, too. The Hentons were in a moment of pause, waiting for the next defining moment of their lives. This was the moment that he knew he needed to be and would be a documentary photographer. This was the moment in James P. Blair’s life that he understood we are all the same when you go “beyond the surface and down to the level of basic humanity.”
The Henton family was eventually granted a place in the new buildings. Jim was there to document them as they learned the news, and again with them when they first entered their new home. However, life and his career took him on a path far from theirs and he never did see them again.
“Chicago” will be on display at Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury from May 23 to June 12. An artist meet and greet will be held this Saturday, May 28, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
For more information contact the gallery at 802-989-7419.

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