Back to interviews
About Talk Tompkins
About Ben Altman
back to

Talk Tompkins

Since moving to the Ithaca area some seven years ago I have been intrigued by the many and diverse communities that exist in the town and surrounding areas. It seems to me that these groups, defined by history, geography, class, race, ethnicity, interests, and many other factors, sometimes have little contact with one another.

Talk Tompkins explores these communities by giving individuals an opportunity to describe their lives in recorded audio interviews. I focus primarily on residents who are not either university/college faculty or students from elsewhere.

Questions are selected from a small list – about the subjects’ geographical and ethnic origins, their work and families, their experiences, positive and challenging, of living in the area, the nature of their immediate community, and their responses to the concept of home. In honor of the Sesquicentennial, participants were asked about what roles the Library, and other community institutions, play in their lives. These stock inquiries often lead to interesting and unforeseeable conversations. The interviews often subvert first impressions and the social cues that might be read into the portraits.

After the interview I select a nearby spot for a portrait photograph, often in consultation with the participant. I like complex backgrounds that speak to the subject’s interests, character, or situation. The photographs are made in color with a 4x5-format view camera (i.e. using sheet film). This is a large camera used on a tripod, and requires the subject to settle into a fairly static pose. It allows me to use a shallow depth of focus while working close to the subject – and lets me stand next to the camera, rather than being hidden behind it. People seem to find this more comfortable than having a big telephoto lens aimed at them from a distance. Paradoxically, this somewhat formal method (together with the conversation we have already had) can result in facial expressions and body language that are less guarded or forced than one might expect.

In doing the project I have discovered a great deal I did not know about Tompkins County, including much greater diversity. I found out that the Tompkins County Public Library and other libraries in the area are greatly used and valued, both for their collections and as a focus of community. I note that the project refused to be contained strictly by the geography of the county – many people who are deeply involved here have businesses, homes, or second homes in neighboring counties or elsewhere.


Photographs: Archival Inkjet Prints with maple rails, 36 x 28 inches.

Interviews: Digital audio recordings, lengths vary.