Photographs That Put Everyone on a Level Playing Field

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 2 2011 6:51 PM

Oh Snap!: Pimps, Pros, and Polygamists Are All Created Equal in Mark Laita’s Portraits

In 100 years, stylists and casting directors should be grateful for Mark Laita’s Created Equal. Dairy farmer, pimp, prostitute, altar boy, cheerleader—just about any kind of character one might want to build an early-21st-century period piece around can be found in his book.

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Throughout the book, Laita juxtaposes his photographs suggestively: A polygamist family next to a pimp and his prostitutes, or a body builder next to a drag queen.

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Laita, who is better known as a commercial photographer, chose the title of his book, Created Equal, to indicate that his aims go beyond cataloguing American archetypes. He uses the Jeffersonian phrase sincerely, writing in his introduction that the concept emerged from “my desire to remind us that we are all equal, until our environment, circumstances, or fate molds us and weathers us into whom we become.”

This idea has brought some attention to Laita’s project amid the Occupy Wall Street fervor. Though it first came out more than two years ago, it’s been making the rounds on blogs over the past few weeks, as a sort of a visual testament to equality.

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The stance of the mafioso from Boston is eerily almost the same as the gang member from east Los Angeles across the page. Laita did not tell them what to do, mind you. In fact, Laita tries to work quickly, photographing people before they have an opportunity to self-consciously mold themselves into something else.

When you look at a motorcycle gang next to a group of altar boys, or a Baptist pastor across from members of the KKK, that argument may get murky. Is Laita suggesting a moral equivalence here? No, he says: He does not mean to suggest that these people have ended up as equals—but rather that they started out that way.

Putting that grand message aside, however, it’s also simply fun to imagine some of these people meeting. What would the rugged fur trapper—who appears to have traveled to the present in a time machine from the 1800s—say to the Cruella de Vill-type in extravagant fur? If stuck in an elevator together, would they chat about outerwear?

That fur trapper partly prompts my next question for Laita. Are these people, many of whom appear to have stepped out of a Coen brothers film, for real?

Yes, he assures me. “In most cases I would simply fly to a part of the country that I found interesting and start driving around. Eventually I would meet a mailman, a cop, or some local who would lead me to someone worth photographing.” Better known as a commercial photographer, he did this in between big shoots for fancy brands. “There was always some serendipitous thing that would come up that would lead to someone great.”

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The man on the left is related to someone famous. You can find out who in the slideshow above.

But you don’t just find an alien abductee or KKK members in full regalia at the supermarket. Some people require arrangements. “The alien abductee, for example, was contacted through the manufacturer of alien thought-control helmets,” he explains.  (The abductee is wearing such a helmet in the picture.) In the case of the Ku Klux Klan members pictured above he wrote letters to the organization requesting a portrait session, letters that went unreturned for months. Eventually he received an anonymous letter from Germany with a contact in Mississippi.

“A week later I met a man at a truck stop in Petal, Mississippi, who drove me and my assistant through the woods for about an hour to a clubhouse where a whole gathering of KKK members was waiting for us.”

This means that, yes, the KKK obliged to participate in a project called Created Equal.

More recently, Laita has focused on what he describes as an easier subject: snakes. He did, however, get bitten while photographing a Black Mamba in South America last week.

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He didn’t even realize that he’d taken the photograph above, he told me, until after he got home and wiped up the blood.

You can buy Laita’s Created Equal here. His next project, Serpentine, is due out in 2012.

Oh Snap! is Brow Beat’s weekly photo feature. Have you spotted a project that’s worth profiling? Pitch to ohsnapidea@gmail.com.

Heather Murphy is a former Slate photo editor and the creator of Behold, the Photo Blog. Follow her on Twitter.

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