Lafayette Library to host acclaimed photographer Collopy
By Lou Fancher
Michael Collopy is an example of what happens when a kid with dreams and lucky timing meets an adult who provides opportunity.
That’s what occurred decades ago when Frank Sinatra said, “Let’s give the kid a chance,” at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos, allowing the young Collopy to take his portrait. Today, as an award-winning portrait photographer, Collopy has captured on camera — and befriended — a stunning list of people including Sinatra, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Barak Obama, John Lewis, Carlos Santana, George Clooney, Paul McCartney, Margaret Thatcher, Coretta Scott King, Maya Angelou, Nelson Mandela, Jane Goodall, Natalie Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Robert Redford and others.
Malala Yousafzai is one of more than 100 individuals whom award-winning portrait photographer Michael Collopy says have displayed courage through brave acts. Collopy will discuss his new book of portraits, “Courage,” on Dec. 2 in a Zoom program presented by the Lafayette Library and Learning Center Foundation.
His work has appeared in Time magazine, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, People and more. Collopy’s image of Mother Teresa has graced the cover of Time three times and was painted as the official Sainthood image at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Since 1996, Hayward-based Collopy has extended the purpose of his work beyond mainstream media, resulting in a foundation, Architects of Peace, and book projects: “Works of Love are Works of Peace” (1996), “Architects of Peace” (2000) and his new book, “Courage” (2020).
Collopy will appear at 4 p.m. Dec. 2 in a free Zoom program presented by the Lafayette Library and Learning Center Foundation in which he’ll discuss his latest project that he says showcases more than 100 individuals who through brave acts have displayed courage.
From the home he shares with his wife, Alma Collopy, and in which they raised two now-adult sons, Collopy says he’s “dying to read” a new biography about renowned fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon. Early mentorship from Avedon and Ansel Adams, with whom Collopy enjoyed a multiyear friendship, powerfully influenced his approach to portrait photography. A primary philosophy — that photography is about friendships, storytelling and human connections, not equipment — continues to guide his work. Now amid the pandemic, Collopy uses a 200-mm lens to maintain social distance.
“Typically, my shoots have been outside. I’ve had trouble being inside and masked because my glasses fog up. Also, having your face not exposed, it’s hard to communicate with people.”
During daily walks along the San Francisco Bay shoreline near his home, he leaves behind the Canons and Hasselblads and uses an iPhone. Instead of people, he shoots pictures of the ground, nearby birds or the sky — especially compelling on days a few months ago when wildfire smoke cast the San Francisco skyline against boiling orange backdrops that he calls “futuristic.”
Asked what images he considers iconic in 2020, he says if health considerations and travel restrictions hadn’t interfered, he would have liked to document the social-justice protests in Minneapolis.
“After George Floyd was killed, I went into Oakland and documented a few speeches but didn’t find it as interesting as if I’d been able to go to Minneapolis,” he said. “I’m always looking for that historical thread. What speaks to my heart are things like the art that sprung up there.”
Closer to home, the separation of people during COVID-19 lockdowns would draw him to transparent barriers.
“I’d take photos of families through home windows; distanced from the outside to relay the fact we’re separated. Or of people working behind glass shields, like health care and grocery store workers.”
No doubt, the images would convey everyday courage: people caring for loved ones who are ill, parents and children facing the difficulties of online learning, unemployed workers managing to feed themselves and their families with limited resources and everyone hoping for a vaccine soon. Collopy says the idea of courage as it guided his selections for the new book led him to pursue people who have fostered joy despite darkness.
“I’d been working on this as a background project for several years, but now we have so much divide in our lives. I made a point of drawing from people from both sides of the aisle, from different walks of life. Regardless of if it was prolonged courage or just one act of courage, it led me back to seeing people as being part of the same family. Courage unites us all. The kinship isn’t always in heroic acts. It takes courage to love, reach out to someone in need, to think of others in a selfless act.”
There are world leaders, 30 Nobel peace laureates, environmental and civil rights activists, celebrities and three U.S. presidents among the portraits. Collopy says many people displayed courage, but also committed acts that reveal human failings.
“It links us,” he says.
Recalling sessions with John Lewis and Dr. Maya Angelou, he admired their ability to march, dance, write and vote their anger.
“They didn’t become bitter. They said it’s OK to be angry when people wrong you. Angelou said bitterness, unlike anger, is like cancer that corrodes a person. They stayed true to themselves and were guided by a spiritual practice that centered them. Once, when I was angry and told Lewis, his only suggestion was to err on the side of angels.”
Among the portraits, Collopy says civil rights activist Dorothy Cotton is less well-known than some but was the highest ranking woman in the inner circle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“She recognized kindred spirits and could inspire others to rise up and be better people.”
He met activist Graça Machel after she married Nelson Mandela and spent three days with the couple.
“I learned what an incredible woman she is. The picture in the book was taken years later. She too could come into a room and change the energy and temperature entirely.”
His hope for the book is that people glimpse their own humanity and believe emulation of courage is possible. He points to a 2019 image of 17-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg, another kid with a dream.
“As soon as she sailed across the ocean and came to the country, I spent hours with her in Los Angeles. She lives out her convictions about climate change: she’s vegan, conscious of her footprint and how she’s taxing her environment. She has the oratory qualities of a Jane Goodall, even at her age.”
Courage, he suggests, comes big, small, long-lasting or in one-offs from all ages, genders and races. The portraits are a gift given to all by a kid who found opportunity to live out his dreams.