In 2010, on New Years Eve, Tanja Hollander was at home alone. She was sending a Facebook message to a friend working on a film in Jakarta and writing a letter in pencil to a friend deployed in Afghanistan. She began thinking about the group of people who made up her 626 Facebook friends. And she decided to see them face to face.
Hollander is an artist known for landscapes and architecture, and six years ago she set out to photograph her Facebook friends at home. She has brought the whole of the project, “Are You Really My Friend,” together in an exhibit for the first time at Mass MoCA in North Adams.
The project would take her across the country and the ocean — into a bee sanctuary, a traveling hip hop performance space, a truck converted into a letterpress studio, and the West Wing of the White House.
For her first official portrait, she said, she spent a week with Samantha Appleton, a connection through a friend, who was then an official White House photographer for President Obama. Appleton invited her to D.C. on the verge of a government shut-down and gave her an informal tour and a photograph of her own: Michelle Obama and Nelson Mandela reading side by side.
So from its early days the project gave Hollander a new understanding of someone she had known peripherally. This kind of experience drew curator Denise Markonish to Hollander’s new work.
“I loved the idea of it,” she said. “Here was someone who wanted to have these encounters.”
Markonish is not on Facebook or social media herself, because she likes to keep her private life private. At a time when many people debate whether social media can distance people, Hollander wanted to connect.
“I was taken by the humanity of this project,” Markonish said.
In the end, Hollander has taken 430 portraits of the people she has visited. In the exhibit at Mass MoCA, 30 are enlarged, some of her favorite images.
“They show a mix of race, class, identity, gay and straight, single moms, single dads, couples, and ages as well,” she said. “I didn’t want them all to be my age and arty types, and those are the majority.”
In one a newly divorced mother stands by the fireplace in an empty room, in the first house she has owned herself, and her son stands beside her on an upturned Home Depot bucket.
“I love that this one is not curated,” Hollander said, comparing it to a neighboring image with objects carefully placed on a coffee table. “It’s someone not visually home but emotionally home.”
The rest of her portraits fill one long gallery wall in a mosaic of lighted rooms.
“We want to overwhelm people,” Markonish said.
At times the project felt overwhelming for Hollander, too. The travel, the coordination, the massive amount of information she gathered all have a place in the installation, in photographs she has taken informally with a point-and-shoot and an iPhone, and in objects she has collected on her travels — a broken sea urchin, beads, sugar packets.
But the portraits she took on film. She chose informal settings, usually kitchens and living rooms. People would invite her in, she said, and offer her a cup of coffee, and she would often choose to photograph them where they brought her.
These are formal portraits. People are grouped together and still, often sitting, looking out of the frame with composed faces. They are environmental portraits, Hollander said — she makes the space as important as the people.
Markonish connected them to a history of photography: journalists Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange documenting farmers in the Depression, and Robert Frank tracing tensions across the country in the 1950s. Hollander’s traveling brought her in touch with national and international events, the Occupy movement, attacks in Paris. But chiefly it brought her in touch with people’s daily lives.
“It can be revealing, seeing people at home,” she said. “You learn about family dynamics.”
And as she caught these glimpses, she found herself asking: How has friendship changed, and does it matter if Facebook has given the word a corporate meaning? As she came to her group of Facebook friends, she said, she photographed few people she had never met, and she rarely felt she had discovered more about them now, coming into their private spaces, than she knew from their earlier contact, online or in person. She realized that conversations that stayed on the surface online would feel equally light face-to-face, and conversations that went deep could go deep in any medium.
She began asking, what is a real friend? She gathered answers at Mass MoCA, at Solid Sound and at Freshgrass, and across the world in schools and colleges. Some are general and some are deeply specific: When my father died, my best friend had a plane ticket home before I did.
What kind of difference, then, has it made, meeting these 430 people in this way?
“I learned how to listen in a way I never did before,” Hollander said. “If you sit and listen and don’t say anything, it’s amazing what people will say. I learned what questions to ask.”
This story first ran in the Berkshrie Eagle’s Arts & Entertainment section on March 17. My thanks to A&E editor Jeffrey Borak. In the photo at the top, clouds frame the clocktower on a late winter afternoon at Mass MoCA. (Photo by Kate Abbott)