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Hundreds of locals attend I Am Fernie opening

Rich Lauriston and his daughter Aila observe photos on display at the I am Fernie gallery opening, March 2. - Phil McLachlan
Rich Lauriston and his daughter Aila observe photos on display at the I am Fernie gallery opening, March 2.
— image credit: Phil McLachlan

For three years, Kyle Hamilton has been photographing faces for I Am Fernie, and recently opened his display of portraits to the public at the Fernie Museum, March 2.

Starting as a photographer ten years ago, Hamilton has grown from shooting anything and everything at random, to focusing down on his niche as a portrait and wedding photographer.

He found it was relatively easy to start anew as a business owner, due to the welcoming nature of Fernie as a whole. However, sometimes he finds he must expand his population base to incorporate clients from other areas.

He had the idea for the project four years ago. Originally, his idea came about from a former Tourism Fernie employee. After brainstorming together, they formed a concept of featuring different tourism operators in town, through photographs. This individual ended up leaving town two months after this idea was formed.

“I was sitting around one Sunday after a couple beers, and thought, why don’t I try to take a portrait of every man, woman and child who live in town?” said Hamilton.

Hamilton initially gave himself a year’s time frame to do this project. After bouncing this idea off his wife, she assured him, through some mathematical calculations, this would prove to be near to impossible. He would have to shoot close to 15 portraits a day, every day, for a year.

“At the time, I was also wanting to sit down and interview everybody individually before I shot the portrait,” said Hamilton. “It quickly morphed from doing it that way to, I’m just going to shoot it when people come in, and try to plan a day or two here and there to dedicate to shooting portraits, and then I’ll do the interviewing afterwards.”

Agreeing to host the gallery exhibit, Hamilton realized after looking back through his frames that he didn’t have quite enough content to make the exhibit what he wanted it to be. Wanting 100-150 more portraits, Hamilton announced on social media that he would be dedicating his studio for two whole days, inviting people to participate. During the first day, 91 people came through the door. Day two, there were people lined up before he arrived at 9 a.m.

“It was a line-up pretty much out the door, all day,” said Hamilton. “I ended up shooting that day until almost 7 p.m. When the dust settled, I think 336 people came through the studio that day.”

“It was definitely a bit of a rapid fire, shooting as fast as I could... But I definitely got a lot of the best portraits in that time frame.”

In terms of portraying an individual’s personality through the photos, Hamilton used a variety of techniques.

“Fernie’s a small enough community, I kind of know of people. I have a bit of an idea of who they are, as soon as they sit down. I’ll maybe ask them a bit of a loaded question when they sit down, that I know might illicit a response for how I would envision they might want to be portrayed,” said Hamilton.

“When people sit down, I just tell them, this isn’t a passport photo, this isn’t one of your school photos, and this isn’t a photo with your mom standing over my shoulder. So I really want you to come through in this photo. Take your personality, and looking into the lens, send all of your personality into the lens.”

Three questions were asked to those getting their portrait taken; what makes Fernie special? What makes you proud to be Canadian? What’s your Fernie story? Answers were displayed on the floor, under each corresponding portrait.

Hamilton showcased I Am Fernie on Thursday, March 2, to 357 attentive locals. 150 portraits were shown in the gallery, narrowed down from over a thousand.

“That blew my mind,” said Hamilton, “That so many people were so keen to come and have a look at what I’d produced.”

“As far as how the exhibit turned out, it’s not at all how I had initially envisioned displaying the portraits, but I’m beyond ecstatic at how it turned out... To see all the faces thrown on the wall, together, mingled and mixed, it’s exactly how our community is. Nobody stands out and is laid out separately from anybody else, no matter what they might think,” said Hamilton.

His initial concept was more of a traditional gallery, all the frames lined up in a row, nice and clean. Little details stood out, including a Canadian Leaf integrated into one of the corners, put in place to cover up a dent. Seeing this, people were thrilled.

Hamilton chose black and white to keep the portraits uniform and real. He wanted people to come right off the street, just as they were, without any prep or beautification.

“I didn’t want anybody getting dolled up or dressed up... I wanted people to come in, in their raw beauty,” he said. “I really wanted the black and white to draw the viewer into the person.”

Laura Nelson is the ex-director-curator of the museum, and she was thoroughly impressed by the gallery display, which also contains her portrait.

“It’s a super creative way to exhibit. This was a challenging show to hang, no doubt. They’ve really done it in an interesting way, and it’s not overwhelming,” said Nelson. “Everyone’s written beautiful things about Fernie. All very similar, but all done in such individual styles.”

What started as a side project in Hamilton’s spare time, turned into an extensive look into the world of Fernie locals. The response received from the community has been so good, that Hamilton has been inspired to continue his vision to capture every man, woman and child in town.

“Once the dust settles on the gallery exhibit and getting the first coffee table book out, I’ll be starting on volume two, hopefully in April some time,” said Hamilton. “If people missed out on round one, be sure to follow me on social media to be notified when round two starts.”

I Am Fernie will be on display upstairs in the Museum until May 30.

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