WESTBROOK, Maine - In a digital world where you can friend and unfriend Facebook connections with a keystroke, what is friendship, anyway?
That was one of the questions photographer Tanja Alexia Hollander had in mind when she started traveling the country, shooting portraits of her Facebook friends last year. An exhibit of her ongoing Facebook-portrait project, “Tanja Alexia Hollander: Are You Really My Friend,’’ opened at the Portland Museum of Art yesterday.
Hollander had been photographing close friends for years, and she found the response to the work was mixed. “Essentially, it was, ‘Why should I care about your friends?’ ’’ she says.
Then, on New Year’s Eve 2010, she found herself on Facebook, instant-messaging with a filmmaker friend in Jakarta, Indonesia, and at the same time writing a letter by hand to a friend in the military in Afghanistan. “I started thinking about friendship,’’ Hollander says. Soon after, she launched a fund-raiser over the Internet and set off on her Facebook-project odyssey.
The Facebook aspect introduces a potent, hard-to-resist conceptual frame to her work.
Portland Museum director Mark Bessire, who also curated Hollander’s exhibit, says the Facebook component drives many interesting conversations. “What’s the long-term impact of Facebook on friends? Who are our friends? Long-term friendships, professional friendships, others - there’s no way to segment that on Facebook.’’
Hollander’s portraits of her Facebook friends - including a photo of Bessire with his wife and two daughters - were almost always shot in their homes. “In the beginning, I was so surprised at how welcoming people were. People were feeding me, giving me their cars, introducing me to their friends and families,’’ Hollander says. “It was like the olden days, with me arriving in my wagon, and people welcoming me and offering me what they had to share.’’
When she couldn’t photograph people in their houses, she shot them where she could: musicians on tour buses, an artist, Kyle Durrie, at her mobile letterpress studio inside a retrofitted truck.
She witnessed friends, many of whom are artists, struggling with the sputtering economy. Several showed off how they are managing. “I’ve never seen so many chickens, prize roosters, and gardens,’’ she says.
Hollander’s studio is at the Bakery Photographic Collective, in a mill building in a Portland suburb, where she has lined the wall with a miniature mock-up of the “Are You Really My Friend’’ installation. In the museum exhibit there are two large framed prints and dozens of smaller unframed ones arrayed side by side for 70 feet - along one gallery wall, around a corner, and down another.
Hollander has started blogging and shooting video, which you can see at www.facebookportraitproject.com. So far, she has visited 144 homes and just over 200 friends. She hopes to photograph all of the 626 Facebook friends she had when she began the process (she has more now).
Best known as a landscape photographer, Hollander has always been an analog artist: shooting on film, printing in the darkroom. Her lush, square landscapes soak in atmospheres of fog and mist, cloud and water. But she didn’t feel challenged by that work anymore - “I knew what kind of fog would happen when,’’ she says - so she began to experiment with portraiture.
Her Facebook exhibit is designed to be as interactive as the social medium itself. In addition to the long lineup of portraits, there will be a magnetized wall where viewers can arrange photos however they like, curating their own small shows. They can photograph the results with an iPad and send them to Hollander, send comments to her on the iPad, or leave a sticky note.
For this project, the artist has abandoned the darkroom for Photoshop and digital printing. Initially, when the enterprise was Web-based, printing wasn’t paramount. “Not every image was up to my high quality. I’m using natural light, and some are going to be backlit or out of focus,’’ she says.
Hollander had previously met most - but not all - of her Facebook friends, although, she says, “You really don’t know who a high school random is from 20 years ago.’’
She had not met Jona Frank, a California photographer. A curator had suggested they friend each other.
“I was late to joining Facebook,’’ Frank admits over the phone from Santa Monica. “My husband said, ‘You’ll get all kinds of requests.’ And two weeks later, here’s Tanja asking to come to my house.’’
At first Frank resisted inviting a stranger in. “The idea of her coming to my house felt really personal,’’ she says. But she read up on Hollander, and felt reassured.
“I know what it’s like as a photographer,’’ Frank says. “You ask people to do things you wouldn’t normally ask. I said yes.’’
Hollander took a photo of Frank and her dog, Shep. “She knew exactly what she was doing,’’ Frank says. “She has a real sense of space, and how it conveys who the person really is.’’
The Internet allows people to be invisible, Frank says. “Tanja’s pictures take away that invisibility. They give people a real sense of how these people live.’’
Hollander says she and Frank are now friends. “If this whole project failed, that relationship would be a great thing,’’ Hollander says.
But the project hasn’t failed. It has taken off. And that’s another Facebook phenomenon. “I didn’t realize this would be an incredible marketing tool until four months in,’’ Hollander says. “I was posting, people were reposting. Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram - social networking is the best marketing tool for artists in this economy.’’Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.