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Building Bridges Through Portraiture



John Kaplan reimagines his Pulitzer Prize-winning 21 project to capture diverse American lifestyles with his Tamron 70-180mm F/2.8 Di III VXD lens.


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By Jenn Gidman
Images by John Kaplan



In 1992, John Kaplan won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for his 21: Age Twenty-One in America project, a series of pictures documenting the various lifestyles of seven 21-year-olds across the country. “I set out to detail the diversity in American lifestyles via a group of young people who were just starting their adult lives,” the Gainesville, Fla., photographer and longtime professor says. “I wanted to show some of the people we often end up idolizing, like rock stars and New York models and NFL rookies, and then also some of the people who sort of get left behind by society.”

Nearly 30 years later, John decided to reexamine that idea of disparate opportunities and lifestyles and create a new series of portraits that aligned with that concept. “In many cases, folks who come from backgrounds with a lot of choices available, as I was lucky enough to have, can somewhat guide their own destiny by making smart choices,” he says. “For many others, however, those opportunities aren’t as accessible. Yes, everyone can make it in America, but for some, socioeconomic realities play a bigger role in how easily that happens.”

© John Kaplan
70-180mm (127mm), F/6.3, 1/250th sec., ISO 800
Click image to view larger

To take his newest set of photos, John relied on his Tamron 70-180mm F/2.8 Di III VXD lens for his Sony mirrorless camera. “I rave about this lens,” he says. “It’s been a game-changer. First, part of the reason I switched to mirrorless was to cut back on weight. Shooting comfort is important to me. The 70-180mm, at just 28.6 ounces, fit perfectly into my new workflow. Combine that with the lens’s versatility, ease of use, and impressive sharpness, and I can create everything I want to. This is my first Tamron lens, but it likely won’t be my last—I’ve also got the 28-75 F/2.8 Di III VXD G2 and 35-150mm F/2-2.8 Di III VXD on my radar and can’t wait to shoot with them both.”

John’s goal when taking pictures such as the ones in the 21 series and in the ones seen here is not only to create a pictorial record of his subjects, but also to seek and show commonality. “It’s such a gift to be able to roam with equipment you’re comfortable with and build a rapport with people you may not think you have much in common with on the surface,” he says. “As humans, we all want to be respected and loved. I try to build bridges between culturally disparate people.”

© John Kaplan
70-180mm (112mm), F/7.1, 1/640th sec., ISO 200
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© John Kaplan
70-180mm (180mm), F/5, 1/500th sec., ISO 400
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Being isolated during COVID lockdown made John appreciate those connections even more. “When I finally started getting out there and shooting again, I craved human interaction,” he says. “I ended up talking to my subjects even more than I used to, because I’d missed having those conversations so much. And I think those conversations and that reconnection helped me better capture my subjects’ essence through portraiture.”

John has worked and mentored up-and-coming photographers in more than 20 countries. Whether he’s photographing in Florida or teaching a workshop in Europe or Asia, John knows that, to connect with the locals he encounters along the way, he has to be genuine. “As a narrative photographer, it’s important for me to remember that there’s something to learn from everybody,” he says. “If you allow yourself to be authentic and enjoy the experience, the photos will follow. You can’t force it.”

© John Kaplan
70-180mm (180mm), F/4, 1/400th sec., ISO 800
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Sometimes, John has to do very little to draw out a subject’s personality. “Take Kenny, for instance,” John says. “I captured this photo of him in the parking lot of a shopping center in a very small town near the Georgia border, where my wife and I had driven to get our COVID vaccine. I only spoke with him briefly, and it’s not like I said to him, ‘Hey, can you grab your hair and give me your best ecstatic, joyous expression.’ Kenny just wanted to be Kenny, and I was lucky enough to have the versatile 70-180 on my camera to capture that moment.”

© John Kaplan
70-180mm (155mm), F/4, 1/320th sec., ISO 400
Click image to view larger

Focusing on the unique positivity that each of his subjects exude also helps John capture compelling portraits. “I was on a public beach taking pictures in the last couple of hours before sunset, what we like to call the photographer’s light,” John says. “That’s when I came across Comesha and Makayla at one of the lifeguard stands, and they were so self-assured and comfortable in their own skin that I was drawn to take their picture. Then I spotted Jem and Kenisha, not far from the lifeguard stand, relaxing on the beach, and I was similarly attracted to their confidence. While editing those two photos later, I realized how beautifully bonded they were.”

© John Kaplan
70-180mm (107mm), F/7.1, 1/400th sec., ISO 200
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© John Kaplan
70-180mm (81mm), F/5.6, 1/160th sec., ISO 200
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In the decades since John started taking pictures seriously as a young teen, he’s generally found most people happy to have their picture taken, though he notes recent times have posed challenges for him as a photographer. “Society, unfortunately, is much more polarized these days,” he says. “Now, when people see a photographer, they may wonder: ‘Where are they coming from? Who are they working for? Do I agree with the point of view of who they might be working for?’ People have their guard up, and I’m hoping that we can build that trust back together. I’d be happy if my images can play some small role in that.”

© John Kaplan
70-180mm (180mm), F/7.1, 1/400th sec., ISO 200
Click image to view larger






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