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Photo Exhibit Showcases Akron Native’s ‘Family Records’

Joe Vitone is a professor of photo-communications at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. Each summer he returns to Akron to spend time with his extended family. For the last two decades, he has photographed various family members during those visits as a way to have a record of his relatives. 

Vitone had no intentions of showing the photos, until 2000, when a volunteer with a Houston arts organization saw the pictures in his studio and suggested he share them with the public.  Vitone assembled the photos in a collection he calls “Family Records.” 55 of these portraits, which have been displayed around the world, are now view for the first time in Northeast Ohio as a body of work at the Akron Art Museum.

David Vitone at his garage filled with possessions of wife, Lisa, who has recently moved out to live with her parents in North Texas, Akron, Ohio [Joe Vitone]

“Family Records” tells both the history of his blue-collar family’s roots in the region while at the same time examining Akron’s shift from a manufacturing center to a Rust Belt city.

“If you grew up in North Hill, where I grew up, or in Barberton, you might not have had an opportunity for an education. I think when you see the people there, the family unit, there’s very much a story arc built over the years,” Vitone said.

Karmal Dye with Tigger, dog of recently deceased son, Cuyahoga Falls OH, 1998   [Joe Vitone]

The arc documented in “Family Records” is one of birthday parties and graduations, as well as cancer, divorce and drug addiction. Some photos reflect the struggles of being a working class person in Akron without many opportunities for financial advancement because of a lack of employment options. Others portraits show people triumphing over trying circumstances.  

Father and son, Leroy and Keith Morlan, Goodrich Avenue, Barberton, Ohio [Joe Vitone]

Vitone’s family members reveal intimate details about their lives that many people might be reluctant to share. The photographer thinks he understands why his subjects are willing to be so open.

“Part of that is trusting the person who is photographing. I think it takes a lot of self-acceptance and honesty. I think it’s an admirable thing,” Vitone said.

Half-brothers Paul Massey and Stevie Hummel in parking lot behind aunt’s apartment, Doylestown, Ohio [Joe Vitone]

The portraits that make up “Family Records” are accompanied by captions that Vitone compiled by interviewing the family members he photographs.  

“I think with a lot of documentary work, you see a picture, it can be quite enigmatic. It is significant, you like looking at it and it is interesting, but if you could enter into it and talk to the person about what she or he was doing at the time, you might be a more satisfied viewer,” Vitone said.  

Salvatore Vitone and Grace Falitico, brother and sister, Stow, Ohio [Joe Vitone]

While he didn’t have an agenda beyond capturing his family in photographs, he hoped the exhibit would call attention to the lives of the people whose portraits he has taken.

“My intent is the way I’m seeing something significant in them. When I’m photographing the folks around Akron, I very much consider it an homage to them. For me, I very much like the idea of photographing good, working class Ohio people. A lot of them don’t have a lot of money or university educations, but they keep at it. They keep living their lives and finding purpose, so I think it is great. For me I say, ‘I wish somebody would photograph these people so that we have significant records of these beautiful people during this time,’” Vitone said.

Joe Vitone, ideastream's Dan Polletta [ideastream]

Family Records is on view in the Akron Art Museum’s Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell Gallery through October 27.


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