"I started my midnight run on Valley Road; Cecil Brooks III posed outside of his club for a shot," photographer Mansa Mussa said in an email. "Next, I traveled up Main Street and took a shot of the West Orange Pancake House and ran into fellow photographer Joya Angola Thompson. I kept on moving up Main Street and captured the manikin at WKW Beauty Supply."
Photographer Mansa Mussa was talking about the first few hours of West Orange Arts Council's (WOAC) "A Day In West Orange," a photo documentary of the people, places and spirit of our township. By 2:30 p.m. that afternoon, he would be at Thomas A. Edison School, where Principal Xavier Fitzgerald looked forward to seeing some of the school's students including Mansa's daughter Abeni photographed. Nineteen hours later, Mussa would be going strong, photographing neon signage in the township.
In between, Mussa was taking photographs, setting up a temporary portrait studio at the West Orange Public Library or checking on the 20 other West Orange photographers — all volunteer — whom he first brought together months ago for the photo documentary.
Among these other photographers is WOAC Chairperson Heidi Sussman: "People are very excited about the project." Sussman said, "I am confident it will have a positive and lasting effect on our community."
As to the subjects, they include the political — West Orange native sons former Governor Brendan Byrne and township Mayor Robert D. Parisi — to the many of the famed musicians who call West Orange their home, the workers at STS auto or a family taking their twins for a walk in their stroller.
"Whatever we come across on the street, we are going to snap it," Mussa said.
There are the inanimate subjects, too. Drawing on summer long input from WOAC members and townspeople, a list of dozens sites was compiled and distributed among the photographers, including, to sample a few, Luna Stage, Essex Equestrian Club, Turtle Back Zoo, Llewellyn Park, the Essex County Sept. 11 Memorial at Eagle Rock Reservation and the Community House.
"We have a population of 42,000 and the township covers 12 square miles," Mussa said. "We can't get it all, but, especially based on the caliber of the photographers, we are going to create a spectacular body of work." Mussa had spearheaded a similar, enthusiastically received project for the city of Newark a few years ago.
Mayor Parisi, who was photographed at the Edison site by Angela Panico, a widely exhibited recent transplant from New York City, anticipates a similar success here. "I look forward to viewing the photos ... which will no doubt tell incredible and real stories through the lenses of the finest photographers," Parisi said.
Ultimately, a major show highlighting selections from the thousands of images will be on view at The Cooperman JCC MetroWest Galleries in the township come March 2012. Mussa thanked JCC MetroWest CEO Alan Feldman and Lisa Suss, WOAC board member and visual arts manager and curator there, for their support.
In addition, works from the collection will be on view in satellite shows throughout West Orange, including at Panera’s, Supreme Baker, the library and the New Jersey Arts Incubator. WOAC hopes to receive funding from private individuals and organizations to help underwrite the considerable expenses of printing and framing.
I had a firsthand experience of the dedication of the photographers. Bill Cofone, 73, the oldest photographer in the group, came to our house three times, scaling the stairs each time to my jazz guitarist husband Bob DeVos' third floor studio. The first two visits were to scout out locations, check lighting and take test shots.
Early on the official day, Cofone arrived, soon followed by documentary film maker Ken Mandel and cameraman Tony Lorenzo, 25, a 2008 graduate of West Orange High School. "We're doing a collateral film project," the West Orange based Emmy award-winning Mandel said. "Plus I am taking shots of the photographers taking their shots."
I asked Bill about the time and thought he's invested in the project, "Like any project, the time you spend increases as you get closer to the day," Cofone said. "The last few days, I haven't thought about anything else."
If the primary goal of the project is to celebrate the creative energy in West Orange and the spirit of the community, there is also a secondary goal: to raise public awareness about the 12-year-old, all volunteer West Orange Arts Council. (Full disclosure, I was a founding member and served as vice chair for many years.)
"We want to find a home for the arts council to get into the public eye and get a place to call our own," Mussa said. The not for profit WOAC operates under the aegis of the township government.
As to the other photographers, they included many well-known professionals: Among these are George Kopp, a long time resident who has shown often in WOAC shows, Terry Boddie, who exhibits internationally and is a major force in the Valley Arts District (VAD) where he has his Oualie Gallery showing site specific works 24/7,and Tony Cordoza, who has exhibited at the VAD IronWorks Gallery and at the New Jersey Arts Incubator, as has Sussman.
Mussa also stressed a multigenerational theme. "We have photographers representing every decade of life from the teens to the 70s," Mussa said.
Mussa was especially happy to have two high school students on board, Mayer Chalom, 16, a student at West Orange High School and Eliot Rubin, 17, who goes to a private secondary school in Livingston. "I always like to have young people around," Mussa said. "They create an energy. Eliot is always moving, going a thousand miles an hour — he's renegade. Mayer is calm, relaxed, methodical, and he'll outshoot us all."
"They met at Great Day in West Orange, preliminary meeting, I overheard them talking equipment," Mussa said. "At the end of the session, Eliot said to Mayer, 'Can I give you a lift home?'"
Here is the complete list of photographers: Terry Boddie, Mayer Chalom , Bill Cofone, Tony Cordoza, Glen Frieson, Barry Gray, Nancy Heins-Glaser, George Kopp, Annette Kushen, Nathea Lee, John Mitrano, Mary Ellen Morrow, Mansa K. Mussa, Amelia Panico, Yvets Norton Pierre, Luisa Pinzon, Elliot Rubin, Marian Rubin, Heidi Sussman, Joya Angola Thompson, Doug Zacker. A special West Orange Arts Beat thank you to them all.