Worth a Thousand Words

Front Porch Portraits capture and connect a quarantined community

By Kendra Walker
Photos by Alison White

I was literally about to rearrange the furniture in my house just for something to do,” says Alison White of her quarantined life during the pandemic shutdown last spring.

But the local photographer says an idea began to brew when a friend reached out to her about a Boston photographer taking portraits of people during the pandemic. “I went for a run and thought about it and the whole project just clicked for me,” says Alison. “This would give me the opportunity to get out of my house and connect with people while everybody was shut down.”

Alison has been running Alison White Photography for 22 years in Crested Butte, specializing in portraits and weddings.

Alison’s idea was to photograph portraits of folks in Crested Butte and capture what life was like for the community during quarantine. Social distancing practices had just been introduced so Alison decided she would capture families from a distance, outside on the front porch of their home. “I thought it would be a really cool timepiece and show how this is our community as it is right now.”

Alison started with her friend Margaret, who had given her the idea in the first place, and posted the family’s portrait on Facebook. The Front Porch Portraits project snowballed from there. “I didn’t promote it at all, it really was through word of mouth,” says Alison. “People were getting a hold of me through text, email, Facebook, Instagram, whatever. So, then I would put a text out that I was coming into a neighborhood and I would show up to their house.”

The idea was to catch families at home, just as they were during quarantine. “I tried not to give them too much notice. I wanted to capture them exactly how they were,” she says. “Every time I went out I told people, ‘do not clean the crap off your porch, do not change your clothes.’ I wanted a snapshot of their life.”

Some people couldn’t resist the opportunity to finally get dressed up for something, says Alison. But there were a few surprises. “One mom and daughter were completely dolled up, but I learned that they happened to be playing ‘dress-up’ to go walk the dog around the block when I showed up. That was something they were doing to keep themselves busy. There was another family—I just knew they totally got dressed for me when I showed up, which I had specifically asked people not to do. But I later found out from the mom that they still got dressed every day to feel normal. That’s how they were keeping themselves on track, that was their story.”

Along the way, Alison captured the unique and unexpected moments of a hunkered-down Crested Butte. “I got to talk to so many people about all kinds of things, everybody had a different story—if they had kids, what their job was, if they had gotten sick. 

“The experiences were just completely raw. There were a handful of people who were in tears because they were experiencing really tough times when I happened to show up at that moment. Tyler Hansen’s family did not know I was coming, and I showed up and he’s in his bunny slippers. One family—the daughter was in her towel and a mud mask. There were a handful of people who have died since, so the families were really grateful to have those pictures.”

One common denominator among the portraits, says Alison, was the dogs. “I was blown away by how many people have dogs in this town,” she laughs. “Dogs were a major part of the project for sure. And almost all of them are posing, looking right at the camera!”

Alison made an effort to capture families from all parts of the north end of the valley, from the town of Crested Butte, to Mt. Crested Butte, to Skyland and Riverland, to CB South. “It was a big combination of close friends of mine, people I know around town, clients of mine, and then I met a lot of people that I didn’t know before. I feel like I know where everybody in town lives now.”

Alison estimates she photographed 235 families over about seven weeks, with a few retakes, for a total of 238 portraits. It petered out toward the end, she says, as people started venturing out in the nice spring weather or started going back to work. “It started getting hard to catch people at home, we were all out playing again.” Her final photoshoot for the collection happened to be the day Gunnison County opened back up again. “It was the perfect end to this project,” she says.

Alison photographed every family for free, because she knew that some people might not have participated if she had charged for the photos. She also sent everyone a downloadable link to the entire collection of portraits to view. “I purposely sent everybody the whole link with all 238 portraits, not just your family’s picture,” she says. “I really wanted to connect everybody who was a part of the project. The feedback that I got was that everybody loved looking through everybody’s pictures.”

From early on into the project, Alison planned to donate her collection of Front Porch Portraits to the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum. “It was a conscious decision not to charge people and do it as a fundraiser. Instead, donating to the museum was clearly the natural choice,” she says. “I really looked forward to the project to be able to get out and connect. But to have this collection of images for me personally had very little value. The value for me was taking the pictures and talking to the people. I realized the images have great value as historical documents for the museum. If they’re fun to look through now, they’re going to be way more interesting in 20 or 50 years from now. I knew that this collection of images would be wasted if it sat on my computer. At the end of the day the value of the collection was going to be much more realized with the museum.”

The museum had just launched its Living History initiative to collect artifacts from the community to document Crested Butte’s experience during the pandemic. “Our mission is to preserve, share and celebrate the history of Crested Butte and the Gunnison Valley. This project really hit all of our mission points,” says museum executive director Shelley Popke.

“Sometimes people think about the museum and our town’s history and we automatically go back to the coal mining days at the turn of the century. For our ‘60s and ‘70s rotating exhibits we did reach out to people that were part of that era of Crested Butte and it was funny because most of them felt like they weren’t part of history yet. But Alison’s portraits and our gathering of Living History submissions just took it to another level of actually collecting the present in this history-making global pandemic. It’s a very interesting opportunity for us to think about collecting and what that means.”

Shelley shares how interesting the beginning of the pandemic was from the museum’s perspective. “Gunnison County was really highlighted because of our reaction to the Spanish Flu.” During the 1918 flu epidemic, Gunnison County is known for having shut itself off from travelers and forbidding anyone to leave in order to protect its residents. The county managed to stay relatively free from sickness while the rest of the world was hit hard by Spanish Flu. “It really was a treat as a historian that people were looking to history for some guidance about how to deal with the present and the future. And now we have this wonderful resource with Alison’s photographs to be a part of future history.”

In her six-plus years at the museum, Shelley says this was her first time involved in collecting contemporary history. “It’s both exciting and fulfilling to be able to create that record with these resources because that’s the museum’s mission. But it is also a very big responsibility.”

Shelley also had her Front Porch Portrait taken. “During a time when we were all disoriented, Alison’s portraits helped us as a community come together in this really tangible way,” she says. “It’s so nice to just go through her photos and see my neighbors and my community members when we really weren’t running into each other a lot. It was really nice to feel connected during a time of uncertainty. 

Alison feels that sense of connection was her greatest reward and greatest gift in doing the project. “I got to connect with all of these people and share their images, and by doing so I allowed everyone some connection as well,” she says. “In a time of so much confusion and unknown when none of us knew what was going to happen, I like to think that I helped people realize we weren’t alone.”