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VISUAL ARTS

With window portraits, a photographer can ‘forget a little the sadness’

Rania Matar's "Ava, Hingham, Massachusetts."
Rania Matar's "Ava, Hingham, Massachusetts."Rania Matar/Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery, Boston

Two weeks into being stuck at home, photographer Rania Matar stood at her kitchen sink in Brookline and watched her neighbor reading in the yard. They’d been waving at each other from their kitchens. An idea struck: This distance, this isolation — it’s a photography project.

She went to her Instagram page (@raniamatar) and wrote, “if you live within a 30-minute drive from Brookline and have access to a ground floor door or window at your house or apartment, I would love to come and say hello and make a photograph. Physical distancing but not social distancing.”

Now, she has photographed more than 50 people, with another 25 to 30 lined up.

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“I’m humbled by the response,” Matar said. “People have time, and we’re all craving connection.”

Rania Matar's "Minty, Kayla, Leyah, Layla, Cambridge, Massachusetts."
Rania Matar's "Minty, Kayla, Leyah, Layla, Cambridge, Massachusetts."Rania Matar/Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery, Boston

The photographer’s nuanced, resonant portraits of women and girls have been exhibited internationally, and garnered her a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2018. She had a mid-career traveling retrospective organized by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth that same year. She has now turned her attention to people peering out from their windows and doors in Greater Boston.

“I get in my car, I have a step stool, my camera, and my mask,” Matar said. “I may not know the person, or the setting, but I make the best of it.” She posts the finished portraits on Instagram.

Last week, she drove to Susan Green’s house in Arlington. Green didn’t know Matar, but as a photography aficionado follows her on Instagram. Green lives alone.

“I’ve been starved for conversation, so I was really happy. She had to ask me to not smile, and it was difficult,” said Green, who works at the Boston Society for Architecture.

Rania Matar's "Susan, Arlington, Massachusetts."
Rania Matar's "Susan, Arlington, Massachusetts."Rania Matar/Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery, Boston

Matar posed Green in a window with an empty flowerbox outside. “At first, Rania said it’s too bad you don’t have flowers planted,” Green said. So she fetched a flower for her windowsill inside.

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“We both felt that spoke to the situation now, where everything is inside out and upside down and backwards,” Green said.

Matar usually works with a film camera. For this project, she’s going digital. “This is something happening now,” she said. “It’s important to make the work and not wait to look at it.”

Window reflections are intrinsic to her portraits. “The notion of inside and outside is important right now,” she said. “Reflection is blurring that.”

Matar photographed Mia Dalglish and her husband, Jun Kuribayashi, through their backdoor in Brighton. Dalglish is a curator at Pictura Gallery in Indiana, with which Matar is affiliated, and also a dancer. Kuribayashi is a choreographer. Pictura will host an online studio visit with Matar about this project at 6 p.m. on May 8 at www.facebook.com/gallerypictura.

“She’s the perfect person to do this,” Dalglish said. “Rania has a way of getting very concisely into the emotional moment of whomever she is photographing.”

Rania Matar (left) arrived in Allston to photograph Mia Dalglish and her husband.
Rania Matar (left) arrived in Allston to photograph Mia Dalglish and her husband.Jun Kuribayashi

This, despite a bit of chaos in getting the photograph shot.

“There was a lot of gesticulating. She was standing on a chair in our backyard. It was a windy day, and the wind was whipping her red scarf around,” Dalglish said. “She was trying to yell loud enough so we could hear what she was saying.”

Kuribayashi has three autoimmune diseases, Dalglish said, so the couple has taken particular care with social isolation. Matar was the first person they’d encountered in weeks.

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“Having someone come to see you was a little piece of joy I hadn’t had for a long time,” Dalglish said.

In Matar’s portrait, Dalglish and Kuribayashi peer longingly through the door.

Rania Matar's "Mia and Jun, Allston, Massachusetts."
Rania Matar's "Mia and Jun, Allston, Massachusetts."Rania Matar/Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery, Boston

“Our hands are on the glass,” Dalglish said. “Someone said it looks like when a train is leaving the station. I feel the world outside is a train leaving the station, and we’re stuck.”

The photo shoot, she said, “helped me process some of the things I’m feeling.”

Matar lives at home with her husband and, in quarantine, five young adults — three of their four children, and a niece and nephew. Even so, she is excited to be out connecting with new people.

“There’s so much enthusiasm,” Matar said. “It makes me forget a little the sadness of what we’re living through.”


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.