Whidbey photographer captures eight-year ‘Metamorphosis’ of son, classmates

Photographer Rich Frishman remembers his young son being taken with the word “metamorphosis.”

The father had explained the finer points of the process a caterpillar makes on the way to becoming a butterfly.

“It was one of those words that Gabe latched onto when he was little,” recalled Frishman.

Gabe is now 14 and getting ready to graduate from the eighth grade at the Whidbey Island Waldorf School.

The caterpillar has indeed made it to the butterfly stage and Frishman was there with his camera to record the eight-year “metamorphosis.”

“Metamorphosis: Portraits of Our Children,” is an exhibit of black-and-white portraits Frishman took of Gabe and his classmates every year, from first grade to the present.

The show opens at the Front Room Gallery in the Bayview Cash Store on Tuesday, June 10 and runs through Wednesday, June 18.

Frishman is a professional photojournalist whose photography regularly appears on the covers of Life, Time, Sports Illustrated and numerous other national magazines.

“I’m always thinking in terms of what would be a good picture,” Frishman said.

Frishman has a contemplative streak as well. He began this project as a way to make a record of what he realized was a unique opportunity.

“I wanted to celebrate these children and honor them in some way,” Frishman said.

It is customary at the Waldorf School to start each school year with an opening circle ceremony at which teachers, parents and students reflect on where the students have come from and what they will go through with each passing year.

Frishman had an epiphany after photographing all of the 11 first-graders in Gabe’s class.

With his interest in history and documentaries always informing his work, Frishman looked around the opening circle one year and asked himself what he could give the class that would be memorable. What would be the best way to record their growth?

Since December 2000 he has been creating the portraits.

Not all of his subjects have stayed at the school for all eight years, but six of them have. The show comprises 52 photos of all 11 original first-graders with additional portraits of other students who moved in and out of the school in the course of those eight years.

Frishman said his goal for the project was to capture the students purely for who they are without stylization or environmental effects.

The portraits succeed on that note, as Frishman placed the children in a bare studio and used very simple lighting allowing the personality of each person to shine distinctly through his lens.

As the years progressed, Frishman said a continuity began to reveal itself in the portraits and by bringing the photo of a student from the previous year with him to each photo shoot, it helped him see the transformation from child to teenager with a startling clarity.

“Portraiture is a collaborative process,” Frishman said. “Some students were able to bring more of themselves more readily than others.”

Some, he said, had to be coaxed and it wasn’t always easy. But, in the end, all the students got to know Gabe’s dad well and became more relaxed in front of the camera as the years went by.

Michael Agate, for example, who stayed with the class for the whole eight years, was particularly good at sitting for the camera, Frishman said.

“Every year Michael developed both physically and emotionally and I think it is revealed in the pictures,” Frishman said. “I thought Michael was good at it.”

Frishman has had a lot of practice taking pictures of people. Many of them are photos of celebrated people, including professional athletes and other famous people.

He said, if possible, he always tries to build a rapport with a person before shooting; something he did most certainly for a nine-month-long involvement he had photographing Dale Gilsdorf, a man diagnosed with lung cancer who decided to euthanize himself.

Frishman said he ended spending so much time with Gilsdorf and his family that he was honored to be asked to be present when Gilsdorf took his own life; with Frishman shooting until the end.

There is a poignant photo-essay of this story on Frishman’s Web site at www.frishphoto.com.

Although he started as a pre-med student in college, switching to communications later on, Frishman said he had a camera as long as he can remember.

“My grandfather gave me my first camera for my fifth birthday,” he said.

“By 10, I was taking so many rolls of film my dad had to build me a darkroom in the basement,” Frishman recalled.

Frishman never put the camera down again and he continued his passion for taking pictures, eventually turning it into a career.

“I am, by nature, a storyteller. Photography is my means of expressing those stories. Often these stories may be conveyed in a single picture. Or the story may take a photomosaic form; images carefully constructed of hundreds of individual photographs,” he said.

Now, the story of his son’s development into pubescence along with his classmates is documented forever.

“I sat down at the computer one day and pulled all the student’s photos up. When I saw all those pictures together, I was really moved. I called my wife over and she started crying,” Frishman said.

Frishman said he hopes the show will provide people with a glimpse at the remarkable transformation of these students and perhaps reflect on all the transformative experiences that are happening all the time.

“These are incredible moments. They pass by,” he said.

A reception to honor the Whidbey Island Waldorf School graduating class of 2008 will be held from 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday, June 13 during the show. The show will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily June 10 through June 18.

To see a slideshow of Frishman’s black-and-white portraits visit www.historyoftheheart.com.