The Bridgeport Portrait Project Brings Campus and Community Together

Geralene Valentine and Jay Misencik discuss their project in the Schelfhaudt Gallery, surrounded by their photos. Photo credit: Dru Martin.

Above: Geralene Valentine and Jay Misencik discuss their project in the Schelfhaudt Gallery, surrounded by their photos. Photo credit: Dru Martin.

What do a Bridgeport City Council member, a writer, the director of the Beardsley Zoo, and an activist have in common? How about a lighting designer, a retired NBA player, a local historian, and a radio host? There may be numerous answers, but here’s one: They’re among some of the many colorful characters currently featured in UB’s Schelfhaudt Gallery.

The exhibit, The Bridgeport Portrait Project, is now on display until March 28. It features documentary style portraits by Jay Misencik and Geralene Valentine, all taken as part of an ever-evolving and ever-expanding work of art for which this current exhibit represents a moment within a significantly longer lifespan—one that will continue onward after the photos come down from the Schelfhaudt’s walls.

When asked about its origins, Valentine said it is “a culmination of previous projects.” Misencik, who taught photography courses at UB in the 90s, explained: “In 1989, we thought we were scaling the idea of a project down when we decided to only photograph people on Bridgeport’s Main Street.”

From there it evolved. A digression, of sorts, set in when they turned their focus from people to buildings, upon taking notice of two abandoned theaters on Main Street—Poli’s Palace and the Majestic Theatre. But it also led them back toward the heart of this present project. “We got a little bit bored just photographing the walls in the theaters, as amazing as they were, and we started looking for people that had a connection to the theaters,” Misencik said.

By the time they were offered a year-long residency in 2014-15 on the third floor of historic McLevy Hall in downtown Bridgeport, the project was in full gear. But what, exactly, is it?

Within the past half-century, a historical method called microhistory took shape that (among other things) endeavors to better account for all members of society, regardless of factors such as class or occupation. Without specifically intending to do this, one might say that The Bridgeport Portrait Project is a microhistory of the city, told through an ever-growing collection of portrait photographs that bring out the unique personalities and interests of some of its many residents.

It is, indeed, already historical in nature: Eight portraits on the Schelfhaudt’s walls are of people who have since passed away. There are also recollections of the Bridgeport Bluefish baseball team, which recently re-located to North Carolina; both the team’s co-founders and the mascot are among those photographed.

But it is not only about the past. The project is still ongoing; it even takes on a life of its own at times. Its organically evolving and community-driven nature was on full display during the exhibit’s opening on January 25, when a crowd of nearly 400 gathered on the UB campus to see—and to be—an expression of the multifaceted city of Bridgeport. Animated as they are in their portraits, when the people in the pictures came together with friends, family, and fellow residents, the project took on a whole new, vivacious dimension.

One striking characteristic of The Bridgeport Portrait Project and its evolution is the element of happenstance, which also played an essential role in its exhibition in the Schelfhaudt Gallery. Peter Konsterlie, the gallery’s former director who passed away suddenly in August 2018, had repeatedly asked Misencik and Valentine to exhibit their project at the Schelfhaudt. “We knew we didn’t have enough at the time,” Misencik recalled.

When the time was finally right, Konsterlie had passed away, and they were unsure of who to contact. So they simply came to campus and, Misencik recounts, “We approached the first person we saw to ask who we might speak with about this–and it was Craig,” referring to Dean of Students Craig Lennon. Valentine continued the story: “He says, ‘wait, I’ll be right back,’ and three minutes later he tells us, ‘you’re in!’”

They would have been hard pressed to find someone better positioned to make such an arrangement. “I loved the idea of highlighting real people from Bridgeport—the city of Bridgeport and the University of Bridgeport are intrinsically tied together,” Lennon said, upon recalling the chance meeting.

Another tale of happenstance, from so many that could be told: Vince Santilli is among those photographed and on display in the gallery. “During the photo shoot I had no idea where the exhibit was going to be housed,” said Santilli, who principally works as the CEO/Director of Homes for the Brave, a nonprofit located just off UB’s campus. But several weeks after his photo appeared on the walls of the Schelfhaudt, Santilli followed his photo, so to speak, to the campus; he recently took up a role as an assistant coach of the women’s basketball team.

There are lots of moving parts that make up The Bridgeport Portrait Project – the people photographed, their stories and interconnections, and the story of the project itself, including its evolution and the way it found its place on the UB campus. Come visit the Schelfhaudt Gallery to see the even greater sum of these many, spectacular parts.

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