BRATTLEBORO — Ever since he was 9 years old, Ezra Distler has been fascinated by photography.
“I joke that everyone in my family can draw or paint, but I really can do nothing with freehand art,” said Distler, whose photographic portraits of essential workers have been running each week in the Reformer for several months. “So I had to find a way to express myself and photography allowed me to do so.”
His first camera was a gift, a Nikon N2020, which had enough manual functions for him to learn to adjust apertures and set shutter speeds. He also used a Pentax K1000 through the In-Sight Photography Project, but what really hooked him was developing the film.
“It’s sort of the classic story of the magic of the darkroom,” Distler said. “Of seeing an image come into existence in the developer.”
Distler said it’s hard to quantify the importance of In-Sight to his career choice.
“It was less structured than high school photography classes. It just felt like I was getting more encouragement to conduct a freeform exploration of photography, playing with all sorts of double exposures and painting with light.”
Between sixth and seventh grades, he took a summer class with photographer Peter Peck. When he was 19 and attending the University of California at Berkeley, he took another class in photography. During that time, he went to Paris for study and ended up snapping lots of pictures.
“I felt like my work took a jump to another level,” said Distler, who’s not really sure if that was because of the instruction he was receiving at the time or because of the magic of Paris. “But I really felt it change.”
When he returned to the states, Distler attended the Hallmark Institute of Photography in Turners Falls, Mass., in 2004.
“That led me to actually becoming a professional,” he said, gradually finding himself becoming a portrait photographer.
“I fell in love with portrait photography because I love the work that comes out of it,” he said. “And you can’t quite predict the impact of how someone might feel when they look at a photo.”
Distler’s interest in taking pictures of people got a boost from the Brattleboro Faces Project, during which he took pictures of Brattleboro residents and displayed them at the Vermont Center for Photography in August of 2019.
“This was a challenge to myself to photograph as many people in town as I could, which I eventually pared down to 10 percent, something I thought I could manage,” he said.
In early 2020, he received a Town Arts Fund grant by the Arts Council of Windham County to continue this work.
“When I got that grant, the idea was to photograph at-risk community members,” he said. “If someone is down and feeling bad about themselves, if I can give them a portrait that makes them feel good about themselves for a minute, maybe that can help just a little bit.”
But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
“The plan was to continue with the Faces Project, but I kind of felt the need to hone in on a subject, rather than just be about anyone and everybody,” he said.
After a discussion with the Arts Council of Windham County, he was able to morph the project into something more topical.
Distler decided to focus on the people who couldn’t work from home, who had to show up every day at their jobs despite the risks — people who were categorized as essential workers.
Distler had worked at the Brattleboro Food Co-op for 10 years before he was able to strike out on his own as a photographer, and he saw how all his friends and co-workers were still showing up for work, even during those early days of the pandemic when so much was unknown.
“If this had happened a few years ago, I would have been right there with my friends,” Distler said. “I felt I had to do something to highlight them.”
Distler took a broad view of essential workers, not just emergency responders or health care workers, but also grocery store workers, people working in hardware stores, bus drivers, food providers and social service workers, to name a few.
“I decided if you were someone working a job out in the world where you were at risk of contracting the virus, then you were essential,” he said. “If you are stuck working a job during a global pandemic, then you deserve to be considered essential.”
“The Reformer has published 64 over 16 weeks,” he said.
But not all of the pictures have been shared.
“Some may only see the light of day in a fine-art context,” Distler said. “I do hope to eventually show them and maybe I’ll put a book together.”
Distler tends to be shy and suffers from social anxiety. Taking portraits helps him deal with his anxiety and when he is a photographer, he can be in control.
“It’s more nerve-wracking to be in front of a camera than behind it,” he said. “Part of the Faces Project and the intention to photograph so many people comes from me trying to work through my social anxiety. It’s like if I’m afraid of heights, I’m going to go mountain climbing.”
Distler said he has also learned over the years to, if not silence his inner critic, turn down the volume on it.