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Portrait Collection Captures American Characters

A group of world-renowned photographers spent summer 2008 trying to capture what they describe as the character of America. Their artistic adventure resulted in a wide-ranging collection of portraits meant to reflect the diversity of 21st-century American society.

The 11 photographers were encouraged to bring their unique perspective to each set of portraits, and each was totally free to decide where to go and what subjects to shoot.

"One photographer went to Alaska. Another photographer went to the farms. Another went to the South," says photo-essayist and portrait photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who headed to the streets of New York City.

"I decided that I wanted to photograph New York, the city I love, because I live here and because it's just a fascinating city that's absolutely full of characters," she says.

…especially during the many street festivals around the city. Mark photographed New Yorkers of different ethnicities and ages at the Pride Parade, the Dominican's Junior Carnival and the Caribbean Day Parade.

"I think one of my favorite pictures is of a child in the children's Caribbean Day Parade," she says. "She dressed in an angel. There is something about her beautiful face and her attitude that made me really feel this was a real moment and she was a real character."

Capturing a character is something all artists strive for, says photographer Eric Ogden.

"You know we really wanted to look at people who are not cut from the same cloth as almost everybody else," he says. "But when you look at any given person, if you really study them, each person is unique and definitely a character."

For his American Character project, Ogden returned home to Michigan.

"I grew up in Michigan, and music has always been of great influence on my life," he says. "So, I decided to go back and pay tribute to those great musicians who came out of Michigan, especially Detroit."

One of Ogden's favorite images is of a young singer.

"His name is Sufjan Stevens," he says. "It's an image where it is like dusk, and he is on a rooftop holding a lantern. I feel like you really have the sense of a summer evening in Brooklyn. It gives a sense of his sort of atmospheric music that he does. I was very satisfied with that image."

The American Character project is sponsored by the USA television network - whose slogan is "Characters Welcome" - and the Aperture Foundation, a non-profit art institution. Artists Ogden and Mark say all the photographers recognized the importance of this project and are satisfied with what they have done to capture the genuine essence of the American social landscape, in all its variety.

"Think seeing the great diverse group of people across the country and often the working class, real people, real characters," Ogden says. "You know these are the people we need to rely on and who we need to be strong to carry us forward."

"I think the Character Project tells us how varied and rich this country is in its land and people and how people are not afraid to be individuals here and express themselves in their own special way," Mark says. "It's really America, one of the most interesting countries. I think when you see this book, it really reinforces this idea."

The American Character portraits are now on display in a touring exhibition across the country. They've also been collected in a book titled, American Character: A Photographic Journey and are displayed on the project's Web site.