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Calgary photographer’s portraits move from porches to the walls of the Glenbow Museum

Click to play video 'New Glenbow Museum exhibit features Neil Zeller’s ‘Porchraits’' New Glenbow Museum exhibit features Neil Zeller’s ‘Porchraits’
Photographer Neil Zeller joins Global News Morning Calgary live via Skype to discuss the Glenbow Museum's exhibition of photos from his socially distant family portrait sessions.

From the porch to the walls of the Glenbow Museum, one Calgary photographer is honoured to have his personal work on display for the city to see.

Neil Zeller’s #porchrait initiative started as a way to bring smiles to Calgarians’ faces during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, his personal portraits have since turned into Glenbow’s newest exhibit.

“It’s so much to take in to be a part of the Glenbow because it’s such an institution in Calgary and the world, really,” Zeller said in an interview with Global News Radio 770 CHQR on Friday.

“Me and my family got a sneak peek prior to the opening last weekend, and when we walked around the corner and saw my name on the wall, we were all pretty weepy.

“It was an incredible moment.”

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Read more: Alberta photographers bring ‘porch portraits’ to residents in self-isolation

Zeller said the idea for the porch portraits came from a similar initiative in Yellowknife, where photographer Pat Kane offered to take photographs of residents through their windows.

Wanting to offer a similar sense of excitement to Calgarians, Zeller began to offer family portraits on residents’ porches in March while adhering to physical-distancing regulations and public health protocols.

“I jumped at the opportunity to do it myself here in Calgary, so I ran down the street to a friend’s house, took a photo of them on the porch and then started a ticketing site. Then four to five months later, I had photographed over 600 families in Calgary,” he said.

“It was done with long lenses and they had a scheduled time that I would arrive, so they knew I was coming and I didn’t even have to knock on doors.”

After seeing his work, Glenbow worked with Zeller to create the first new exhibit since the museum reopened its doors to the public at the beginning of August.

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Jenny Conway Fisher, Glenbow’s director of communications and marketing, said the museum is excited to host the exhibit as it offers a unique viewpoint of Calgarians amid the pandemic.

“Neil’s Porchrait project captured a historic moment that we all experienced in different ways,” Fisher said.

“In these photographs, you recognize a kindred spirit, you see people really coming together as families and as friends and finding ways to deal with stress and loneliness and hardship.

“The results are heartwarming and funny and poignant.”

Read more: Glenbow Museum asks for letters documenting Calgarians’ experiences amid COVID-19 pandemic

Since opening on Sept. 5, the exhibit has “struck a chord” with audiences and brought many visitors back through the museum’s doors, Fisher said.

“We saw all our timed-ticket spots fully booked on the opening three days of the Porchraits exhibition, and this past weekend was almost fully booked too,” she said.

“We’ve had lots of people reconnecting with Glenbow and purchasing or renewing memberships. It feels great to have people back in the museum after five months of closure.”

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The exhibit showcases 59 of the more than 600 families Zeller photographed throughout the pandemic.

Zeller said he hopes the images he chose reflects the importance of family and the city’s resilience during these unprecedented times.

“We co-curated it in a way that showed the diversity of Calgary,” he said.

“It was a really difficult decision, but we made a diverse show that everyone can grab onto and maybe even see a bit of themselves in some of them.”

The exhibit doesn’t have a scheduled end date, but officials said Porchraits will run throughout October.