Matt Mendelsohn’s intimate portraits
Alumnus' photos document hopes, heartbreaks of Virginia high school seniors during pandemic
Matt Mendelsohn ’85 didn’t know what to do when COVID-19 shut down much of the United States in March. The photographer, who is based in Arlington, Va., saw his full slate of portrait and event work “evaporate.”
“We do a lot of big events here in Washington, D.C., and everything was just canceled,” he says.
Mendelsohn did what a lot of people did that first month of the pandemic: hunkered down, got into puzzles and watched The Office for the who-knows-what-number time.
In the first week of April, his daughter had a suggestion. She was then a junior at Yorktown High School in Arlington, and knew that the school’s Spring Fling would be canceled. So she asked if he would take a picture of her in her dress.
“It was a melancholy moment. She was really looking forward to it, and I felt bad,” Mendelsohn says. Even though bigger and more far-reaching losses were happening at the same time, that bad feeling stuck with him. He couldn’t sleep that night. Then, at about 2 a.m., he got an idea of something he could do: take portraits of Yorktown High School seniors.
With canceled proms and graduations, Mendelsohn felt students weren’t having the typical end-of-high-school experience.
“It’s not life or death, but a completely different kind of loss that no one was paying attention to at the time,” he says.
THE PHOTO SUBJECTS
With the help of a neighbor, and a fellow high school parent who also happens to have her own public relations firm, he was able to reach out to and take pictures of about 400 of the school’s 509 seniors. These weren’t typical high school photos, either. Mendelsohn started his career as a photojournalist, covering subjects from war zones to the White House for United Press International and USA Today.
He brought that mentality into the picture sessions: he set up a backdrop outside the students’ homes, asked them to hold or wear something that meant a lot to them, and took a few shots with a long lens while wearing gloves and a mask. He made sure to stand far enough away that he wasn’t putting himself or the students (or their families, who sometimes helped out) at risk. He used natural light to further cut down on what he needed to carry, and set up.
“I stood in my driveway for my photoshoot, and Mr. Mendelsohn mainly took the photos standing on the street, regularly checking to make sure that there were no cars coming through!” says Jackson Pope, who was photographed playing his violin while wearing his performance shirt, jacket and tie, and jeans.
Pope is now majoring in violin performance at Boston University. “We weren’t able to get the backdrop to stand on its own since it was particularly windy that day and our driveway is sloped, so my parents stood behind the backdrop to hold it up,” he says.
The entire process took about 15 to 20 minutes per student. Annabelle Bowman, a freshman studying dance performance and dance education at Rutgers University, recalls the sessions as “fast and furious.”
“It was clear that Matt wanted to get to know each student and personalize their photo in a way that was meaningful. He also had to balance that against the practical reality of having over 400 seniors to photograph,” she says. Picking what to do in her photo was easy: “I have been dancing my whole life,” she says, mostly ballet. So in her photo, she’s doing a piqué turn.
Tara Hall, now a freshman studying physics at Franklin & Marshall College, wore her prom dress and carried a battle-ax, which she’d made herself for a costume she wore to Katsucon, an anime fan convention held in Washington, D.C. (she dressed as Scarlet from Fire Emblem, which also required making armor).
“I already had the dress, and since prom isn’t really a thing anymore, I may as well put it to good use,” she says. Her mother helped her pick out what to hold. “We figured the contrast between the big battle-ax and the soft, flowy prom dress would be cool to look at.”
Henry Hoagland chose to wear his Junior ROTC uniform because of how much the experience meant to him in high school. He was the second in command at the Arlington County JROTC unit.
“My unit became like a second family to me, as I was generally spending three to five hours a day with them, and I knew I had to show that in Mr. Mendelsohn’s project,” says Hoagland, now in the Navy ROTC at Virginia Tech, majoring in chemical engineering.
What started out as a small volunteer project for Yorktown High School’s pictures didn’t stay local for long. At first, Mendelsohn posted the photos to his own Instagram account, then created instagram.com/yorktownseniors_2020 for the project. He’d ask students to answer three questions (What did you do? Where are you headed? And what do you love?), and post the answers with the pictures.
It went viral. News outlets from NBC’s Today to The Washington Post and NPR to the BBC covered the project. A German television station even called. “I’m getting emails from people in Australia saying they’ve heard about the Yorktown seniors,” he says.
While Mendelsohn was surprised by the attention, he says publicity isn’t why he took on the project.
“It was a fun way to do something for these seniors who were getting lost in the shuffle,” he says.
As for what’s next, Mendelsohn says he doesn’t know. Events haven’t come back to the level they nearly were, but he says that the Yorktown High project has introduced him to hundreds of people in his community who will need a photograph at some point.
It’s also given him a shake-up — in a good way.
“I had more fun doing (the project) than in the last 10 years of weddings and portraits,” he says. “We were doing something important to these seniors, and I’ve found that I’m being creative in ways I hadn’t been for a long time.”