On a sunny Saturday in July, Jose "Jay" Angel Saenz talked about his latest work, a project mostly completed in an extremely short period of time. Equipped with a camera, a vision and studio space wherever he could get it, Saenz managed to pull off an epic-scale, project-turned-production in honor of Boise's sesquicentennial. The 35-year-old Boise transplant from Austin, Texas, never once associated himself with the title "photographer."
"I've been into photography for about two years, but I definitely don't consider myself a photographer," he said. "Photography was just the medium used to express this particular project."
The project in question, entitled Collaboration, includes the portraits of 150 Boiseans as part of Faces of Boise: A Look at Local Identity, on display at the Sesqui-Shop through July 27.
"It didn't start off as a project for Boise 150," he said. "It really started as a way to visualize the people that I was accountable to in the community."
The project grew, though, and once it was a Boise 150 project, Saenz did 120 of the shots in about 18 days.
"Which was a whirlwind," he said, "because the process is not, 'Stand there, do this and I'll take your picture.' It's a conversation that has to happen between me and the other person; and, for me, the art was actually in that moment with the two of us talking through things."
It's these conversations captured on film that attracted the attention of Rachel Reichert, communications manager for the Boise City Department of Arts and History and Sesqui-Shop curator and manager.
"We were kind of looking at the whole identity of the city. We already had a collection of projects that explored Boise's identity, and Jay's work naturally fit in with that theme," she said.
Collaboration includes portraits of Trey McIntyre Project dancers and staff, as well as 94.9 FM the River radio personality Tim Johnstone. In a moment of stoic intensity, the monochromatic eyes of each subject look past the camera and directly at the viewer. Each subject of the 20-inch by 29-inch portraits resides in a state of natural reaction to whatever conversation took place with the artist.
"I call it 'Collaboration,' because when you think about getting your picture taken, you show up and someone tells you how to pose and they take the picture," Saenz explained. "This is about a conversation, and only if you're willing to have the conversation is the picture going to come out in a way that is interesting to an audience. It's collaboration between me and the city I love, and a lot of the people I care about."
The interplay between the artist and the finished product is one Saenz likes to keep behind closed doors.
"The sessions were usually private, because once there is someone observing the process [the subject's] entire persona changes," Saenz said. "There was this realization that a smile and a frown are very easy ways to convey emotion, but human beings, we're like smoke. We're more complex and layered. ... [Y]ou have to determine what they're thinking for yourself."
Respecting the privacy of his subjects, Saenz was vague about the sessions.
"I asked them to talk about things they'd lost, people they'd missed and things they loved. We went through really frank and honest conversations you have with friends you've known for five or 10 years, and a few of these people I'd only known through social media," he said. "I've had photographers ask me how I do it, and I tell them that's my art, getting [the subjects] to do that. The technical side of photography is something I have a limited understanding of, but the process of getting people to be vulnerable and open and willing to be seen in stasis is the art--especially with the Facebook mentality that every picture should be you at your best. I think this was an interesting way to counteract that, to be willing to be seen as just 'here's me.' I found that much more compelling."
Once Saenz accepted the task of completing the project for Boise 150, it was a rush to finish the work on time.
"When the Boise 150 thing came up, it was a mad dash to hit that number," he said. "Sometimes I would just announce where I was going to be, and people came."
That was far from the finish, though.
"We dove right into two and a half weeks of shooting but then it was like, how do I get them printed?" he said.
With so many shots, it would have been too costly to print them himself.
"[W]e reached out to the community, and HP stepped in and volunteered to print all of them," Saenz said. "They liked the project, they liked the work but they only had three days to print and deliver, so they really stepped up."
Where the exhibit will end up is still in question. One option: Collaboration could be stored--in part--in the city of Boise's archives.
"[T]here was a mention that it could be archived, and I think that would be amazing. I would be really humbled if those pictures were put in the city archives for future generations to enjoy," Saenz said.
If that doesn't pan out, Saenz has other ideas, including sending the exhibit to galleries around Idaho--even the nation.
"I wouldn't want to sell these pieces at all, but it would be neat to show people what Idaho is really like, and the people that are in it," he said. "When I was at the opening, there was someone who said, 'I didn't realize our city was so beautiful.' I think if you're someone from another city, you might think Idaho is just corn or potatoes, and that's not all we are."
With the Boise 150 exhibit completed, Saenz is focused on his next move, but Collaboration is something he hopes to continue as he goes along.
"I want to produce new works," Saenz said. "But I want to continue this project on the side and continue with the idea that I can do more as I meet and connect with more people."