Reframing Portraiture with RX Fogarty
Robert X (RX) Fogarty defined his career in portrait photography by getting people to tell him their stories. His otherwise traditional portraiture style, straightforward and minimalistic, frames the subject and their experiences on their own terms. Fogarty started his career by accident, taking pictures of New Orleans residents as the city recovered from Hurricane Katrina, asking them why they loved where they lived and kept persevering. In 2010, one subject wrote the message, ”Cancer Free” on his chest in black marker, and Fogarty photographed him.
This burst of authenticity inspired Fogarty’s Dear World project, which has endured for eleven years. To date, the Dear World team has documented over 125,000 people’s stories scrawled in black ink across their own skin, offering an impressive sample of the human experience at large. Each image evokes a deeply personal feeling.
Dear World evolved as Fogarty and his associates traveled across the planet, from Louisiana to South Sudan and just about everywhere in between. Along the way, Fogarty and his team developed a precise storytelling technique—the Brain Tattoo Method—to help subjects compose messages that were original. First, participants reflect on their life and identify the people, truths and ideals that define their core. Then, they remember three distinct memories or “Brain Tattoos” that they hold dear.
“What they write is meant not to be a cliche but something only they can share.”
Finally, the subject takes those key experiences and values and uses them to craft a brief message, which can be an entire piece of prose, a dialogue or a simple concept. “What they write is meant not to be a cliche but something only they can share,” says Fogarty. With these messages written on skin, the subject is ready to have their picture taken, capturing that statement for the world to see.
Dear World then grew beyond photography. Capitalizing on the Brain Tattoo Method, Fogarty and his team established a media non-profit that distills the method and distributes it through presentations, courses and tours, seeking to improve communication skills and organizational culture through storytelling. Dear World established its headquarters in Salt Lake in the summer of 2019, right before the pandemic halted conferences and live events. To adapt, the organization pivoted to an online format, offering virtual keynotes and classes.
As the freeze on social gatherings began to thaw, Fogarty returned to live photography-centered events through his Portrait Parties. “After a decade [of Dear World] and being in a new community, I was like, ‘Man, I want to do something that feels human and connected, and also make new friends,’” he says.
His Portrait Parties depart from the heavy emotional resonance and global scope of Dear World, though the intimacy remains. The photos that come out of Fogarty’s Portrait Parties range in style since different guest photographers fill in each session, but a relaxed and sincere atmosphere saturates each series, regardless of who operates the camera. That authenticity emerges in part thanks to the party venue.
“I want to do something that feels human and connected, and also make new friends.”
As of writing, Fogarty hosted eight portrait parties, with seven taking place in Salt Lake. For the Feb.12 Portrait Party, guests first RSVP’d online. When they arrived at 625 S State Street, an 8” by 11” piece of paper taped to an innocuous glass door greeted them with numbers to text. After texting, hosts lead the guests up a steep set of stairs to Dear World headquarters, a swanky apartment-turned-photo-studio looking out our Downtown. Fogarty and Co-hosts Alex Dikwa-Nkrumah and Makayla Kianna mingled with the growing crowd. Well-dressed partygoers leisurely lined up for guest photographer Travis Hunsaker to take their photos against a stark, white backdrop. After chatting with strangers with a cold beer or cocktail in hand, posing for portraits feels a lot easier, your guard dropping as a more sincere you slips out.
Portrait Parties reframes Fogarty’s craft in a social setting. “Portraiture is an art. It never should have been relegated to a photobooth,” says Fogarty. Dear World and the Portrait Parties both hinge on the interpersonal connection that makes portrait photography such a compelling and enduring artform. Fogarty’s classic and methodical approach paved the way for a far-reaching media empire, offering unique insights into expression, reflection and storytelling. “The best advice I ever got was ‘the smaller the niche, the bigger the paycheck.’ I wanted to be known for one thing. Once you start to find what you like, try and really hone in on how you can make it yours,” he says.
While Dear World continues to put down roots in Salt Lake, Fogarty hopes to make his Portrait Parties a weekly affair. For more information about upcoming Portrait Party dates, follow Fogarty on Instagram @rxfogarty. You can also visit dearworld.com for more information about Dear World and its mission.
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