Dennis Connolly’s Windows to the Soul

When Dennis Connolly was a kid and his five uncles on his dad’s side came over to visit, they would all playfully beat each other up.

“That was their way of showing love,” Connolly said – but he didn’t necessarily want to be the object of that sort of affection. So he used an unconventional method of self-defense: photography.

“My dad gave me a small Brownie camera when I was probably about seven or eight, and I was able to use that at that time as a matter of defense because I was the guy geeking around taking photographs,” Connolly said.

Now he uses photography for a completely opposite purpose.

“As I evolved in my life, I found that I could use a camera – as opposed to a barrier – as a connection, and I would use it to communicate with people,” he said.

He does so through portraiture and has spent most of his life traveling, so his subjects hail from all over the world. 

Connolly traveled throughout Europe, Russia and Africa during his time in the U.S. Air Force and later went to Central America and Mexico to volunteer in dental care. Eventually, he began traveling for pleasure rather than business, taking photography trips to Spain and Costa Rica, and, among other locales, visiting his daughter in Turkmenistan, where she served in the Peace Corps.

Photo by Dennis Connolly.

During his travels, Connolly always made time for photography. Only about a third of his subjects are people he knows personally; the rest are strangers.

For instance, he said, “I was walking the street in Guatemala, and an old grandmother type was sitting cleaning peas in the doorway, and I stopped and asked her if I could take her photograph. She invited – or insisted – [that] her granddaughter and two babies come out to be photographed.”

That’s how Connolly finds most of his subjects. Through years of practice, he’s developed an eye (pun intended) for distinctive features and expressions.

Although portraiture is his favorite form of photography, he wants to stretch the definition of the term. The word “portrait” reminds most people of full-body poses or headshots, but he thinks portraits can zoom in on the subject even more.

“I decided a portrait can also be hands or just a portion of the face – the eyes particularly,” Connolly said, and so it is that hands and eyes are the focal points (again, pun intended) of his current exhibit – Vision and Touch: Portals to Our Emotions and Understanding the World – at Hope United Church of Christ in Sturgeon Bay.

“Our hands and our eyes, I think, are two instruments that help us enjoy the world and understand the world and feel the world,” Connolly said.

Some of the show’s subjects are locals. For instance, one photo features the hands of his wife as she makes pasta. But more of the photos depict strangers from around the world: “some from Cambodia, some faces from Sicily, some hands from Turkey.”

In addition to varying in locale, the photos in the exhibit vary in age. Some are from 15 years ago, but he took others recently, with the intention of featuring them in the show.

Photo by Dennis Connolly.

Looking through a Different Lens

Decades of experience shooting portraits have changed how Connolly views people. For one thing, he finds beauty in all types of faces – especially ones that fall outside of conventional standards. 

One of his favorite portrait subjects was an elderly man he met while staying in Sicily. Despite Connolly’s “10-word Italian vocabulary,” the man always told him stories in Italian, and he found himself fascinated.

On a broader level, Connolly’s portraits have made him change how he views the world.

“I saw people with dignity and happiness who, by any standards, had no real earthly goods,” he said. “But they had themselves, and they had their families, and they had their function within their society. I think we in America sometimes start to lose seeing our function, our importance in our societal group.”

Sometimes the lives of such people can feel abstract and far off to us, but Connolly hopes that his photos can remind viewers just how real those lives are. 

“You can’t be face to face with these particular people in real time, but you can be face to face with them in these images,” he said. “That’s really third best, but it’s a start.”

Connolly’s photos will be on exhibit through Jan. 17 in the community art gallery at Hope United Church of Christ, 141 S. 12th Ave. in Sturgeon Bay.

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