Portrait of an alley

A serial portraitist is at large in our fair city. From late December 28, 2009, until early March, there were 71 victims, one a day, dragged into the same back alley and shot. The culprit's name is Mo Whibley, a handle that sounds like it belongs to an old blues man in a Simpsons cartoon.

A serial portraitist is at large in our fair city.

From late December 28, 2009, until early March, there were 71 victims, one a day, dragged into the same back alley and shot.

The culprit’s name is Mo Whibley, a handle that sounds like it belongs to an old blues man in a Simpsons cartoon, and he currently has a show at Gallery 22.

The Alley Series is a collection of 21 photos, selected from the 71 portraits taken in over just as many days.

The pictures show people sitting in dumpsters and shopping carts, hanging off of pipes, poles and windows, jumping in the snow and lounging in the sun.

No two photos are alike and it’s difficult to tell that all of them were taken in the same short alley.

Whibley completed the project under a set of self-imposed constraints:

One digital camera.

One fixed, 50 mm lens.

One alley from sidewalk to sidewalk.

Ambient light only.

A different person every day.

Seven days a week.

“It was like a haiku,” said Whibley.

“I would set the grounds and constraints and work within that.”

The idea appeared to Whibley late last year, when a mother came into Photovision to get a portrait of her grandson.

The shop, where Whibley works, doesn’t normally take photos – it’s a print lab, not a studio.

Whibley’s boss told him to just go into the alley behind the shop and do the photo there.

At first the kid was serious and a bit nervous. Whibley told a few jokes and got his subject to crack a smile.

It was a great shot, capturing the moment just before the smile, the laughter having reached the eyes before the mouth.

Whibley discovered that the shop had a fantastic studio – the alley that ran behind it, between Main and Elliot connecting 2nd and 3rd Ave.

“I loved the light back there,” said Whibley.

“The alley faces east to west and didn’t have direct sunlight for the entire winter. So what I would get was a huge, blanket soft box of downward lighting that’s really fun to shoot.”

Another constraint was that the project began on December 28 in the dead of winter, when there was only a one-hour window of good usable light.

Slowly, after 71 days, the sun came around and began shining into the alley creating patches of light and shadow that added something new to play with, said Whibley.

Whibley grabbed most of his subjects off the street or from cafes.

A stocky man who occasionally sports a handlebar moustache, he sometimes had trouble convincing people to come into his alley for a photo shoot.

“It’s a bit weird asking people to come into dark, weird places with low visibility.”

As word got out about his project, people began showing up to have their portraits done.

But because he only did one a day it didn’t always work out.

Sometimes five people would show up to participate on the same day. Other days there was no one.

On a few desperate evenings as the clock was nearing midnight, Whibley had to drag people out of the bar and into the alley, waving his hand in front of a motion sensor to get “natural” light.

For his portrait of Jerome Stueart, a local author, Whibley found a piece of cardboard in the alley, cut it into a speech bubble and gave him some markers.

“Write something,” Whibley told him. “Anything.”

Stewart drew a picture of Mr. Spock giving the Vulcan salute and enjoying a cup of coffee.

“I didn’t want photos of people standing in an alley. I wanted their energy, their characters, their life.”

“I love non sequiturs that feel like they’re a story that make you think, ‘What the hell happened before this and what the hell happened after?’” said Whibley.

One portrait shows a man creeping around like Wile E. Coyote, hiding behind a section of fence that he’s holding.

Another portrait shows Lonnie Powell sitting in an old chair, looking dejected, as a strange liquid drips out the pipe next to him.

Whibley has long been a Yukon photographer who doesn’t touch upon the usual northern subject matter of landscapes and animals.

“I spend most of time in Whitehorse because this is where I work,” said Whibley.

“I’m not walking around trails in meadows; I’m walking up and down paved streets.”

Whibley also enjoys the fact that the photos show what lies behind the false facades of the buildings along Main Street, which try to make Whitehorse look like an old western town.

“I wanted all of it gone. I didn’t want any kitschy Yukon specific stuff,” said Whibley.

“It’s just a Yukon alley with Yukon people.”

All 71 photos can be viewed on Whibley’s blog at www.photoblog.com/whibley.

Why 71?

“Mostly just to spite everyone who would ask me, ‘Are you going to do 50? Are you going to do 100?’” he said.

“To hell with round numbers. I shot until it felt good.”

He is thinking of starting a second round of the series, capturing some of that summer light and watching what happens when you get more people in the alley.

So the next time some dude invites you into an alley, you might want to hear him out.

Whibley’s The Alley Series is currently on display at Gallery 22, above Triple J’s Music Cafe.

Fittingly, the gallery is in a back alley and a bit hard to find.

It’s at 308 Elliot Street, behind the Hougen Centre, just after the dumpster, to the left of the drainpipe.

You can’t miss it.

Contact Chris Oke at chriso@yukon-news.com