Portraits of a troubled economy

Elyssa Houchen smiled faintly as she faced the camera.

"I'm 17," she wrote in her response to the photographer's question. "My dad couldn't make enough money to keep my mother married to him. She left. I now live with my dad, older sister and 3 room mates.

"I've had a second job for the past 6 months and have been finishing my senior year of high school. I'm still coping."

Houchen, a Huntington Beach resident, was one of 245 people who posed individually for Gina Genis' lens after walking into the Huntington Beach Art Center back in March and April.

The subjects were perfect strangers to Genis. They were from different generations and walks of life. They included scientists, pensioners, students, laid-off Boeing plant machinists — even two members of the City Council, Genis said.

She asked each one to write out his or her response to the same question. Then, after taking their pictures, she superimposed their written answers onto their portraits.

Her question was this: "How has the collapse of the economy affected your life?"

Genis has now published a book cataloging those 245 photographs, which she shot over five and a half weeks for her "Economy Portraits" show at the city-run center in the spring. At the HBAC on Saturday afternoon, Genis will talk about the project and sign copies of her book. The free event will be open to the public.

Rather than confine herself to a corner of the center's William & Lorraine McCure Gallery, Genis said she wanted to engage real people in the making of her project who happened to walk in. Once they agreed to be photographed, she had them tell their own stories about living in the hard times.

She took the photos against backdrops of red, white or blue in a small studio set up in a corner of the gallery. Eventually, she created an American flag by patching together many of the images.

Because of space constraints, Genis could only fit about half of the 245 portraits into the flag, which measured 11 feet by 18.5 feet wide.

The photos that did not make it into the giant patchwork all made it into the 132-page picture book.

In October, the OC Weekly named "Economy Portraits" Orange County's Best Art Show of 2011. Genis, who lives in Laguna Hills, previously had her work displayed at the Laguna Art Museum and Festival of Arts, among other venues.

She created "Economy Portraits" specifically for the Huntington Beach Art Center, which had invited her and three other artists to take part in an experimental artist-in-residency program, "Open Dialogues," which the center plans to bring back next year, said curator Darlene DeAngelo.

When starting the project, Genis said she had no way of knowing how people would respond to her question.

"I didn't know if this was going to work because I was asking a very personal question," she said.

But the project proved to be popular, even cathartic, for many of the people who posed for Genis and opened up through their own words. Genis now intends to produce similar shows around the same question on the East Coast, the South and the Detroit area, but is seeking financial support to expand the project.

Betty Goldwater, an 88-year-old Laguna Woods resident, was one of Genis' 245 subjects for the Surf City show.

"The price of my medicine has [gone] up, but social security has not," Goldwater responded. "I cannot afford all the medicines recommended. I cannot afford to hire a care taker, so my daughter had to leave her home and move in with me."

Genis also took a portrait of Richard Longo, 40, a former Los Angeles Times employee from Fountain Valley.

"I have reinvented myself by reeducating myself in the nursing field …," Longo wrote in his response to the photographer's question. "I have learned to live on less and appreciate the small things in life."


Twitter: @ImranVittachi

If You Go

What: Photographer Gina Genis will sign copies of her pictorial book, "Economy Portraits" ($28.95 plus tax)

Where: Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach

When: 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday

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