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West honors Boston's past through 'Portraits of Purpose'

Shelly Runyon | 7/27/2011, 1:36 a.m.
Edmund Barry Gaither, director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, is featured...
Edmund Barry Gaither, director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, is featured in “Portraits of Purpose: A Tribute to Leadership (Boston, 1980-2011)” at the Boston Convention Center. Don West

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Edmund Barry Gaither, director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, is featured in “Portraits of Purpose: A Tribute to Leadership (Boston, 1980-2011)” at the Boston Convention Center.

As the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts (ULEM) addresses the State of Black Boston this week during the civil rights organization’s national conference, they offer up a glimpse of the past.

On display — and for three months afterward — is a photography exhibit by Don West, photojournalist and chronicler of Boston’s political past.

“Portraits of Purpose: A Tribute to Leadership (Boston, 1980-2011)” showcases three decades of leadership in Boston and around the world. Some of the faces that will be recognized as icons of black history include Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou and Bishop Desmond Tutu. Others, recognized as icons of Boston’s current leadership, include Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral, Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson and filmmaker Lisa Simmons.

The collection of more than 60 portraits spans West’s career from working for some of the East Coast’s largest news outlets — The New York Times, Boston Globe and Christian Science Monitor — to working for some of the community’s most influential icons and members. West is arguably best known for his work at the Bay State Banner.

In 1983, West was the official photographer for Mel King’s mayoral campaign and, in 1990 he photographed Nelson Mandela’s first visit to Boston after his release from prison.   

In 1997, the Museum of African American History commissioned the first exhibit of portraits taken by West. The idea then was to frame a conversation about progress in the African American community around 25 images.

Today, the concept is not much different, though the scope is much larger. The ULEM is hosting this exhibit to reflect on the past and visualize the progress of black leadership in Boston.

The conference focuses on the issue of jobs and the overriding concept of how diversity works in Boston. The portraits are meant to tell that story.

“The value of this exhibit,” said West, “is to talk about what has happened and show the people that were involved in these changes.”

Each life-sized image will be displayed in black and white. Some photos are posed and others are action shots. Some are lighthearted, and some are pensive.

Angela Paige and Joe Cook are caught in a happy moment as they pose together for a picture, each smiling into the camera, “eminat[ing] the proud and determined spirit” of their work, as the caption reads.

Judy Richardson looks away from the lens, her chin resting on her hand as if she’s thinking about her next documentary and its impact.

Mel King stares through the lens, and draws the viewer into his bright, purposeful gaze. He looks as though he’s about to open his mouth and explain himself but he doesn’t need to. The caption next to his image reads, “The ‘chain of change’ is still being forged by the people.”

And that is exactly what this exhibit demonstrates. These leaders are the “chain of change” over three decades in Boston. Each “represents the different facets of the Boston experience,” explained West.  “They are all about trying to help the people that need help, that need to have more opportunity to be more successful.”

The “Portraits of Purpose” exhibit will be on display at the Boston Convention Center through October.