Rick DeMint’s Portroids

JournalArt & Culture

Rick DeMint’s Portroids

Photographer's instant film obsession captures some familiar faces...

Art, music, literature… there are very few, if any, creative disciplines where a healthy obsession doesn’t bear significant fruits. Call it a preoccupation, a fixation, an infatuation or an addiction; the overwhelming urge of compulsion is something that enlightens and torments creatives in equal measure. While Rick DeMint may not be consigned to a psychiatric hospital like dot-obsessed artist Yayoi Kusama or, in the vein of Brian Wilson, have taken 38 years to complete an album – he does have a tight set of rules that dictate his obsessive art.

And what of said art? Fusing the words portrait, and Polaroid, DeMint’s Portroids are candid snaps signed there and then by their subject, who invariably will be the proprietor of a famous face. From Hollywood glitterati to hip-hop superstars, the President of the United States to homeless ‘icon’ Radioman – over the course of 10 years, DeMint has pulled his instant camera out on more celebrities than many of his subjects have popped champagne corks.

The results are intriguing if nothing else, an intimate look into the eyes of an un-Photoshopped personality – human traits jump out of the shots, and PR-training falls casually by the wayside. Look a little deeper, and there’s a real charm that exudes from DeMint’s instant film addiction; it’s not just the household names who lend character to each shot, but their interaction with DeMint himself surprisingly brings the artist and his personality into each shot – you can often feel the connection, no matter how fleeting a moment. Charmed, and eager to find out more, we caught up with Rick for a rather lengthy chat about all things Portroids…

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Hi Rick, can you tell us a little about the man behind the camera?

This question is so vast that it stymies me. I’m 6’1″. Slender build. Blond hair. Love to travel, have fun, and take short walks on the beach. I think dogs are great. I do fairly well in running races (5k and 10k, did a 10-miler recently) despite never training. I’m mediocre at bragging. I like comedy. I like writing. I enjoy photography. I dislike watching sports. I live in Brooklyn, NY. I say that I don’t like to talk about myself, but I do it more so than not…

You started Portroids in 2003, has instant film always been a big part of your life?

Before 2003, not really. Since then, absolutely. As a child we had a Polaroid camera around the house, but it wasn’t something I actively used. Our family albums had Polaroids mixed throughout, including one that has been lost over time of Jackie Gleason on the set of Smokey and the Bandit II. There was always a fondness for the format and the instant tangibility of it. A number of years after I started taking portroids, Polaroid stopped making the film. There were many years (all the way up to 2012) where any picture I took would come with a sense of not knowing if it would develop properly (due to the variable results of expired film and the gradual loss of dependability of each dying battery) and the moment’s chance would be lost.

Luckily, most turned out okay, but others didn’t and I felt I might need to stop, or come up with a new way of documenting these experiences. This company, The Impossible Project, had been working dilligently on a new solution and I used their film when possible (some of their film required immediate shielding, which didn’t lend itself to being able to be autographed). They have a new batch that I’ve been using exclusively where it doesn’t need to be shielded from light, so my confidence in the output is re-invigorated.

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From a series in collaboration with street artist Jilly Ballistic,
in New York City’s Underground

I actually took a Polaroid camera to a few gigs when I was younger, and got some of the bands I met to pose for pics and sign them – but I soon got bored. Did you wake up one day and decide to dedicate so much of your life to this, or did the obsession slowly take hold?

I’d love to see some of those Polaroids you took if you still have them.

Once I started, it has always just been fun for me, so I’ve continued. I don’t think much about it. I have my camera with me all the time and stay alert. Since I only take pictures of people I’m a fan of (or are my friends), it has almost become second nature and not an impediment to my daily life. If there is an opportunity that does not feel like an imposition, I’ll take it. As you may’ve noted from your personal experience, the novelty of a Polaroid camera opens the discussion and allows the chance for a photo and to let them know you appreciate their work. A genuine interaction, no matter how brief, fuels my obsession (as you called it).

I have to ask this; over the last ten years, you’ve captured Portroids of an inordinate amount of celebrities. Are you a stalker?

Ha! Interesting. I suspect “stalker” might be too harsh, as it implies malicious or unwanted attention, also probably a singular focus on one subject. Though, I bet there are some parallels that can be drawn. Yikes! Maybe I’m a total creep. But seriously, I try to be considerate of someone’s space and privacy, usually only ever getting one photo in a lifetime of any particular person (unless the initial one did not turn out, or it is a friend and I want to capture their likeness over time, or if I am shooting photos for a specific event), and I always ask permission and thank them for their time (while trying to take up as little of their time as possible).

A lot of the portroids I take are at specific events, festivals, performances, conventions, signings, and the like where a person expects to interact with fans, or me personally (if it is pre-arranged with them directly or a PR person).

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Your FAQ page states that your wife isn’t a fan of your obsession (sorry, life’s work) – what happens if you’re out for a romantic meal and a celebrity walks in?

It completely depends on the situation, but I won’t usually disrupt my own evening, nor someone else’s, for the sake of a portroid. My wife is a much bigger supporter of my project than anyone else, having been part of it for the full length. She often spots people before I do and we evaluate the portroidable* opportunity together (*I totally made “portroid” into a verb).

Barack Obama, or Baloo – who was the biggest coup for you?

Baloo was super cool, but I will have to stick with Barack Obama on this one. That was particularly great because there was a huge group lined up to meet him and I was toward the end. About half of us were told that we would definitely not get in. As a result, most of those people left and I stayed. They kept telling me that I wouldn’t get in, but I stuck around anyway and did get in. No posed photos allowed. I shook his hand and took a picture as I walked away. Then, because I was at the end of the line, he was leaving the hall just as I was. He stopped to talk to a crowd, so I took the chance at another photo. I asked him to sign it and he did. It was very cool.

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Do you have a favourite?

This one is always hard because it changes so often. It usually revolves around the interaction and not necessarily the photo itself. I really can’t choose. I’m horrible with favorites. Here’s a fun story, though: Years ago, I was at the HBO Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, CO and had arrived at a theater as Matt Groening (creator of “The Simpsons”) was walking out. I’m a huge fan of his, so got a picture (which he wrote “NOT FOR RESALE” on the back).

Then Eddie Izzard came out. I also love his comedy, so asked for a picture. He insisted that Matt Groening be in the photo with him. I usually only want portroids to have just the one subject in them, so when I took it, I sort of tried to edge Matt out to the side. The ridiculousness of taking a Polaroid of Eddie Izzard WITH Matt Groening and trying to edge Matt out still makes me laugh to this day. It remains one of my favorites.

Your FAQ also talks about celebrities asking for approval prior to ‘signing off’, so to speak – that’s pretty prima donna hey? Any ridiculously diva-esque anecdotes that stick in your mind?

I usually try to stay away from saying bad things about people, particularly because I’m a fan of the people I talk to and photograph. Some people don’t want to have their picture taken, so I thank them and move along. Some people don’t sign autographs. One story that I’ve told before was about Spike Lee. I was at an event for the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech. This was during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, so a lot of celebrities were in town and at this event. Anyway, I went up to Spike Lee and asked if I could get a photo. He didn’t say a word and just walked away. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and later when he was standing nearby again I asked again. Same response. Silence and walked away.

I kind of wrote off the possibility, but then last year, I saw him here in New York. I had the chance to talk to him and he could not have been nicer. He posed for a picture and signed it and was friendly as can be. So, now I try not to judge people, especially those who are probably approached all the time and may just want to enjoy their time without some creep sticking a camera in their face. I’m the creep in this example. Uh-oh.

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I assume you’re always armed, ready to pounce – what’s your weapon of choice?

I do carry the camera at all times. I was strictly a Spectra guy using the wide frame film and went through the 1200FF to the Spectra Pro and then the Spectra System SE. I switched to the Sun660 Autofocus SE in November and am really enjoying it.

Is there a holy grail? The one elusive celebrity you’ve always pined for?

This one changes all the time, but Bill Murray is up there. I feel like he is just someone whose work I love and I’d love to meet, but that he is sort of reclusive, so unless he is at a film festival or some other public event where he interacts with a crowd, I might just be out of luck. You never know, though. I may run into him walking down the street and the Polaroid may intrigue him. Who knows?

What next for Rick DeMint and Portroids?

Hopefully getting a portroid of Bill Murray.

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Rick DeMint himself, as photographed by iconic street photographer Louis Mendes