In 2009, contemporary Maine photographer Tanja Alexia Hollander took up residency in France. She knew at the time that she had exhausted her pursuit of landscape photography. The body of work that propelled her to an international career — infinity-filled images of distant horizons that blur the demarcation between land, sea and air — was behind her.
She didn’t know what was next, and used her time in France to play and explore. She made a lot of photographs of people in their homes, and when she returned to the United States, she pursued the theme from her base in Auburn. She was renovating her house at the time, and felt bound to her domicile both practically and emotionally.
On New Year’s Day 2010, Hollander made a list of things important to her, including travel, home and friendship. When not working on her home, Hollander made portraits of her closest friends and acquaintances.
The transformation from landscape photographer to portrait artist had begun. In the fall, she mounted an exhibition of her work.
Some people liked it. Others, not so much.
“There was a lot of, ‘I don’t know why I should care about your friends,’ ” Hollander says. “But I knew there was something there. I just didn’t articulate it very well.”
On New Year’s Day 2011, it clicked.
Simultaneously, she was engaged in a live Facebook chat with a friend in India while writing a letter to another friend deployed in Afghanistan.
The experience made her think about the intangible and sometimes miraculous nature of friendship. We can’t touch it, but we know when it is real. It can survive time and distance, and is capable of sparking up in unexpected ways.
She asked herself, “Is friendship something that can be photographed?”
Hollander has spent the year exploring that question. Since January, she has immersed herself in a quest to photograph each of her 626 Facebook friends. That number has topped 700 by now, but Hollander is focused on the core 626.
Her project, “Are You Really My Friend: The Facebook Portrait Project” has taken Hollander to 11 states, where she has photographed more than 150 friends. She blogs about her experience at facebookportraitproject.com.
It’s a huge effort that’s likely to result in a book of some kind. But the grand finale “would be for my friends on Facebook to change their profile picture to the picture I make of them,” she said. “I would love to finagle it so it’s simultaneous so it looks like an exhibition.”
Hollander’s life has become singly focused. “My days are pretty much driven by the spreadsheet,” she said. “I was invited to a barbecue in Gray, and I pulled up my spreadsheet to see who lives close by. ‘OK, brunch in Cape Elizabeth? I can do brunch,’ and then I see who lives in the neighborhood.”
“The Facebook Portrait Project” is further complicated by international travel. Hollander will visit several European countries, New Zealand, Israel, United Arab Emirates and India.
Especially if she can secure a grant or two, she thinks she can finish by next summer. The Maine Arts Commission supported her early work with a Good Idea Grant.
Some friends, she has not seen in 20 years. Other friends, she’s never met.
“It’s awkward to show up on someone’s doorstep with a camera,” she said. “But what I am realizing as I travel and as I meet people, one of the things that is most striking to me is how generous people are. Which is the opposite of what you would expect from a Facebook project. These people are real and genuine. People have fed me and offered me a place to stay.”
This project, which started with an idea sparked by a quiet residency in the French countryside, has led Hollander into the next phase of her career.
A St. Louis native, she moved to Portland as a teenager. She took photography classes at Maine College of Art while still in high school, and earned her bachelor’s at Hampshire College in Massachusetts in 1994.
She has shown regularly in Maine, New York, Boston and elsewhere, and has twice been selected for the Portland Museum of Art Biennial, winning a purchase prize in 2007. She is a member of the Bakery Photographic Collective.
Hollander has traveled all over the world with her art, oftentimes in long pursuit of a single theme. Her landscape photography sustained her for several years and on many levels — intellectually, personally and professionally.
But just as she moved into landscape photography from another focus, she is taking on portrait work with the same sense of wonder and naivete.
“The most exciting thing about photography is not always knowing what you are going to get,” she said. “In school, my graduating thesis was self-portraits. Then I went into more abstract work, which turned into the windows, and the window work turned into the landscape.
“Each time I switched, it’s because I sort of learned how to make the picture. That’s why I am sort of done with the landscapes. I knew the kind of light, knew my exposure. I knew what would work and what would not. It wasn’t challenging anymore. If it’s not challenging, I get bored. And if I get bored, there is no point in making the work.”
Although she is still wading in and testing the waters, Hollander feels fully committed to the Facebook project. In some ways, it has taken on a life of its own: Hollander has turned her project into a bit of a travelogue.
Her blog provides updates on her work and whereabouts.
This project is all about efficiency. Hollander travels simply with carry-on luggage and strives to remain non-invasive.
“I want people to be as natural as possible and to feel as comfortable as possible,” she says. “Once you bring in lights and assistants, it adds a layer between me and the person.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: