Walk. Talk. Photograph. Repeat: James Dickerson’s Street Photography at the TMA

Utilizing the slowness, intentionality and limitations of film photography, James Dickerson captures everyday encounters with people walking the streets of Toledo. His newest exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art showcases his creative process. Cover graphic by Dea Kukeli for Midstory. Original images courtesy of James Dickerson.

Equipped with his Rolleiflex camera and a snack, James Dickerson leaves his house and, on the spot, decides what direction to walk in. He treks through multiple neighborhoods, his eyes peeled for people to ask a simple, yet powerful question: “How are you doing?”

Known as dirtykics on Instagram, Dickerson is a street photographer based in Toledo, Ohio. His newest exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art’s Robert C. and Susan Savage Community Gallery is open to the public through July 14, 2024.

Dickerson’s film photography features the people he meets during his long walks around Toledo. Dickerson said it can take up to 45 minutes for him to encounter someone; sometimes, his walks last up to six hours.

When he gets home, Dickerson immediately begins developing the film in his basement — a rather repetitive and mindless process after so many years of practice, he said. He simplifies his workflow by shooting primarily black-and-white film, requiring only one kind of developer.

Calling time in front of his laptop “a slow death,” Dickerson finds the tactile process of developing film more enjoyable than digital editing.

Self-portrait of James Dickerson holding his Rolleiflex camera. Image courtesy of James Dickerson.

Dickerson’s exhibit is titled “In Order to Live,” a nod to his deep passion for photography and the way it has sustained his life.

“Photography is more than a stimulant I take when I see something cool. It’s a medium I chose to reacquaint myself with life again,” Dickerson writes.

Although other photographers may be drawn to the city’s tall buildings and historic architecture, Dickerson gravitates toward its people.

“Photography really blossomed for me once I started to hone in on the environments and the segregation that exists in downtown Toledo,” Dickerson said.

A few streets down from the wealthier office buildings — where commuters come and go downtown — lie stretches of low-incoming housing home to some of Toledo’s most impoverished communities, including resources the residents may need: the bus, library, and Social Security. Dickerson feels protective of the people in need of these resources, frustrated by the biases and assumptions held against them.

“My focus on Toledo was highlighting the everyday person that exists here,” Dickerson said. “I want to make sure their visibility is strong and that people don’t write off who these folks are.”

Image courtesy of James Dickerson.

The local — and personal — focus of Dickerson’s work led the Toledo Museum of Art to reach out in the hopes of featuring his photographs in the Community Gallery.

“[Dickerson] really focuses on the people of Toledo and their lives — the good, the bad. So I really wanted to highlight him as an artist and his vision, but then also use it as an opportunity to highlight the people who live in Toledo,” Jennifer Cantley, Community Gallery & Advisory Manager at the Toledo Museum of Art, said.

The design of the exhibit guides visitors around the room, first to an expansive collage. 

Image by Ben Morales courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art.

Keep walking and you’ll find several single-framed images, followed by three vinyl frames, each highlighting a series of photographs from distinct days Dickerson considers “turning points.” As a lover of narrative-nonfiction writing, he included a short story to accompany each.

“That whole wall is kind of focused on mental health, and that wasn’t intentional. But again, my work is kind of driven by that. I’m just thinking about the state of folks,” Dickerson said.

Image by Ben Morales courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art.

When deciding what photographs to include in the exhibit, Dickerson aims to “immortalize” the legacy of those he photographs. While Dickerson was setting up the exhibit, museum security recognized someone photographed, which to Dickerson was “the best feeling in the world.”

“Hearing someone say, ‘I grew up with this person,’ and they share a story or two about that individual … I love that,” Dickerson said.

Beyond the exhibit itself, the Toledo Museum of Art also provides other ways for the community to engage with his work. 

“We do a lot of community outreach … where the artist comes in and works with local youth in the community and teaches them about their art and what they do,” Cantley, referring to the museum’s Family Center, said.

According to Dickerson, children will have the opportunity to create a collage similar to what he hung in the gallery space. Visitors can also shop the exhibition and support Dickerson by purchasing one of his photographs.

Dickerson is excited for people to view the exhibit, but is eager to continue widening his impact. He dreams of creating a photography hub in Toledo.

“I really do believe in the strength of photography, especially in the hands of somebody in their neighborhood,” Dickerson said.

Image by Ben Morales courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art.

2 COMMENTS

  1. This is just AWESOME! What a great way to not only get involved but to help his community and to do it because he cares, he took something he felt deeply about & created a way to reach out to people, help people & be able to survive while doing it. Smart.
    It was kind of a “fluke” that I read this article since I’m not really into photography and just happen to come across it and for some reason I was intrigued a little to keep reading, I believe everything happens for a reason, having said that, this article not only inspired me it also gave me a few good ideas.
    The world could use a few more people like him. 😊 Well done sir! God Bless

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