I began the Onion Portraits in the fall of 1976. I had been living in Winooski Vermont since 1969, and had discovered in the downtown of this former mill town a rich and diverse social fabric. Rents were cheap in Winooski after the mills closed in the 1950s, and there was a lively interplay of young and old, of workers and artists, and of persons from varied social, economic and ethnic backgrounds that gathered daily in the many neighborhood bars, restaurants, diners, barber shops, pool halls, and bingo parlor.

In the early 1970s I watched as much of the downtown was demolished as part of an Urban Renewal program. City blocks were knocked down, neighborhood businesses were forced to close, and families and long term residents were relocated to the outskirts of town. By 1980 the mix of personalities, the story telling in the diners, the interactions of the shuffleboard leagues were gone and all that was left of the Urban Renewal site was a widened highway, a bank, and a parking lot.

                            1971                                                              1976
aerial view of Winooski, 1971
Video of Demolition, 1972

It was in that context that I began the Onion Portraits as both a documentation and celebration of a community that was under assault. I chose the onion as prop, appropriate not only because  the townís name, Winooski, is the Abenaki word for wild onions growing along its river, but because the onion is strong and reeks of a flavor unsettling to a gentrified sensibility. I saw it as an unpretentious way of residents affirming their presence in the community. Each day during October 1976 I exhibited a new Onion Portrait in the window of an unoccupied storefront still remaining on the west side of Main street. As the photos accumulated they spilled into the windows of other establishments on Main street and the exhibition became a kind of local theater. By the end of the month many people were asking me to come into their homes and photograph them for the project.

During the 1970s and 1980s I continued to document the social life of Winooski, exploring social situations as they arose, broadening my field to include institutions such as schools, churches, fire department, senior centers, and so on. I made photographs of people and places central to the social life and exhibited the work in  local cafes and storefront windows.  In 1991, responding to the emptiness of the downtown and loss of community, I produced a mock 12 Days of Christmas portfolio, inviting former residents to be photographed in my studio. Later, in the darkroom I recreated a full community of coffee servers, cooking chefs, plumbers, pipers, dancing ladies and leaping lords, a project that reached many former residents when it was featured by local media.

In 1993 , as Winooski became a focus for Refugee Resettlement programs, I began a new series of "Onion Portraits", photographing immigrant families from who have resettled in Winooski from places like Vietnam, Bosnia and Iraq, asking them to pose with the requisite onion and include in the picture memorabilia, photos or objects that give clues about the places they left behind. There is an ironic symmetry in that while the Federal programs of the 1970s were responsible for the destruction of community, it is the Federally subsidized Refuge Resettlement Program of the 1990s that is making the social life of Winooski more diverse and interesting.

The Onion Portraits continue to speak of specificity. To pose with the onion is to participate in local lore; Its embrace is an affirmation of locality.

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