John Michael Cooper should be exhausted after three rounds of traipsing across the country capturing portraits of other photographers and their families, but if he is, he certainly isn’t admitting it.
Cooper’s “Roadside Families” project began to take shape in Tampa, Florida, in 2008, when photographer and WPPI print comp chair David Anthony Williams was passionately speaking at a DWF convention on the importance of the family portrait and the power of having tangible products of those images to preserve special memories.
“David is a second generation photographer and he showed a photo of him and his mom during his talk, but he didn’t have a complete family portrait that included his dad,” Cooper explains. That prompted Cooper and his wife, Dalisa, to set out and find other photographers who don’t have their own complete family portraits either.
“Roadside Families is a ‘pay it forward’ project,” Cooper says. “We will photograph a photographer’s family and give them a physical print that is ready to hang on their wall at no cost to them.” In turn, photographers are then asked to photograph another photographer’s family willing to also pay it forward, provide a physical print for their wall and commit to doing a couple of hours of volunteer work, community service or to donate their service to a worthwhile cause.
While on a nine-city speaking and workshop tour in 2008 from Las Vegas to Boston and back, Cooper and Dalisa photographed 37 families who had either never had a family portrait taken or hadn’t had one done in a very long time. Round two took place in 2011, when the duo went from North Carolina to New York, back down through Kansas and then up through California—and photographed 56 families. “Truly American,” Cooper says of the experience. In 2017, they shot 114 families in three trips across the country, driving 20,000 miles. Some portraits were shot against the side of an RV against a white background; others were finished as environmental scenes taken in 5 to 15 frames each, with the final images done as composites. Some images in the series may look instantly familiar to WPPI showgoers, like those of former WPPI director Jason Groupp and his family, current print comp directors Jerry Ghionis and wife Melissa, photographer Jen Hillenga and SEO guru and wedding photographer/WPPI speaker Rob Greer.
“It was a huge endeavor but fortunately my wife took care of all the logistics to see who was willing to participate,” Cooper says. Also helpful in moving things along was the involvement of Cooper’s main sponsor, Simply Color Lab, along with sponsorship from Finao and Lavalu.
Early on, Simply Color founder and CEO Adam Fried committed to giving a ready-to-hang print to each subject’s family, “which made it so easy for the photographers getting the prints to not procrastinate in hanging it on a wall and memorializing their family portrait,” Cooper says. “In 2008, they gave subjects canvas prints, in 2011 a framed print, and for 2017 a Heritage wood print. You simply put a nail in it and hang it on a wall.” And when Fried was getting married, Cooper veered off his Roadside Families route a bit in order to shoot the wedding. “A bridal portrait is a first family photo, so I was thrilled to be able to give Adam his first family portrait.” To see the complete project, visit roadsidefamilies.org.
The Nostalgic Shoot
“My point for the Roadside Families series is that I want people to look dated and I want them to age fast,” says Cooper.
Here are the do’s and don’ts he tells families to make that happen.
• Do dress the way you do in real life.
• Don’t have everyone dress in like or similar colors.
• Don’t tell your kids how to dress.
• Do bring a personal item to reflect what you’re doing or what’s important to you at that time in your life.