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Mark Dellas

(b. 1959)

Dellas: A Conversation in Progress  by Aidan Ryan

If you’ve had the pleasure of speaking at any length with Mark Dellas, you’ll recognize one of his signature phrases: to tell you the truth.

It really is a signature–to tell you the truth, or sometimes the truth is–he deploys it as a kind of guarantee of authenticity, usually following an observation or opinion on art, politics, character, or the rapid vagaries of twenty- first-century life.

You’ll hear it often if a conversation really starts cooking. Dellas is a conversationalist, but really (to tell you the truth) he likes listening more than speaking.

Born in Buffalo in 1959, the young Mark Dellas began shooting his first subjects around the same time that he began holding lengthy conversations–at six or seven–as comfortable speaking with the adults in his family and neighborhood as he was taking their photographs with his father’s Kodak Brownie.

It makes sense, then, that one of Dellas’ guiding artistic beliefs is that a good photograph will tell a story.

There has to be something real, a mood or an honesty, for an image to work for me–something in the “eyes” of the subject, he says. I have to be able to read it compositionally. It has to emote something in one way or another to be effective. If the image is there, I attempt to perfect it in the darkroom.

Dellas may attempt perfection, but, like any good conversation, there is an absence of finality in his photographs.

In truth I am never happy with what I do, he says. The test for me is time. I live with my prints. If a print can hold up over time, I consider it somewhat successful–though I don’t believe I have ever been completely satisfied with any of my work, any of my prints.

With the money that he earned delivering newspapers Dellas upgraded from his father’s Kodak and bought a Polaroid 420 and shortly thereafter his first SLR camera.

Dellas attended the State University of New York at Buffalo where he took his first photography classes and learned how to develop film and print black-and-white photographs–the foundation of his career.

In his early 20s, Dellas experimented with light and with darkroom techniques, and shot all that he could afford to–mostly inanimate objects, studies in composition, light and mood. He took random photography classes at local colleges for access to their darkrooms, and during this period, Dellas’ style began to emerge–one distinct and immediately recognizable today.

Dellas exhibited his work for the first time in 1985, when the Albright-Knox accepted two black-and-white photographs of a dramatically lit table into a juried show. It was also around this time that Dellas started using people in his photographs–really using them, as compositional elements, posing them almost like inanimate objects.

Through 1986 and ’87, Dellas would take frequent trips to New York City, trying to find galleries to look at and show his work. Flying off to Manhattan and knocking on doors was a lesson in humility, he says.The trips to New York proved productive, in a sense–it was here, for example, that Dellas bumped into Andy Warhol and took a striking street portrait. But the city’s reaction to his work was evasive at best: We can’t see you today … Send us slides … Come back in two months.

In the art world, it seemed you had to wait around for someone to approve of what you were doing, and, increasingly, this turned me off, Dellas says of this period.

Until this point, Dellas had approached his work strictly as fine art. But as he entered his 30s, the requirement of capital to produce fine art–and the demands of family life–moved him to consider new methods and venues for sharing his work with the widest possible audience.

I began to search out commissions–portraits, weddings, advertising, anything. My intent was to infuse something of myself, my fine art work, into these commissioned projects. To me, it was critical to maintain an integrity in this more commercial work.

One of Dellas’ first commissioned jobs was for Neo at Franklin and Allen Streets in Buffalo. The owners, Joan and Joyce Zoerb, let me loose photographically, he says. The images I did for Neo were sort of avant-garde, sometimes toned, black-and-white images of androgynous women holding products, that we used in print advertisements. Peller & Mure, a higher-end Buffalo clothing retailer, and Palanker Furs were other notable commissions to follow. These were creative projects for me, Dellas says.

The biggest catalysts in my life were my kids and my marriage–the sense that you’re responsible, that you have to make a living, he adds. In respect to exhibiting my work, at that point, I felt I could do this later in life. I needed to survive and to progress and to do this I needed to shoot and work all of the time.

While his attention turned to commission work, Dellas did exhibit work in traditional and non-traditional settings through the late 80s and early 90s, ranging from the Allentown P.C. Chelsea Gallery to the Bryant Street restaurant Just Pasta. In 2005, he exhibited at the Albright-Knox Members Gallery on Elmwood.

Some of Dellas’s commissioned projects, though, earned him even wider recognition and acclaim. Numerous businesses have commissioned Dellas for large-scale and multi-piece projects: his prints have hung in Neo, and occupied the entire back room of the former Mulligans on Hertel; more recently, they have been featured in the 31 Club on Johnson Street and 800 Maple, Hive Lifespan Center, and at Buffalo OBGYN office on Main Street in Amherst. His portraits of musicians and bands including Lloyd Cole,The Goo Goo Dolls, and Ani DiFranco have appeared on album sleeves, websites, posters, and more. With the Just Buffalo Literary Center, Dellas has taken portraits of the most celebrated and beloved living authors, from American titans like Edwidge Danticat, Jesmyn Ward, and George Saunders to underground stars like Hanif Abdurraqib to international sensations like Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Perhaps the most notable example, though–certainly for audiences in Western New York and Ontario–is Dellas’ commission to produce portraits of the Buffalo Sabres. Executed and displayed in 2005-6, this project immediately followed the controversial NHL players’ strike and lockout. These iconic black-and-white player portraits in street clothes, humanized the players and played a strategic and effective part in the subsequent Sabres rebrand. The portraits were originally displayed as larger-than-life triptychs throughout the arena, and were an integral part of the experience of attending a Sabres home game.

Dellas has nodded to a few other photographers, such as Helmut Newton (1920-2004), as influences. Dellas’ work has all of the seductive tension of a Newton photograph, but none of the provocateur’s alternately voyeuristic or imposing gaze, none of the rejection in his subject’s flat eyes. To encounter a Dellas photograph, in contrast, is to be welcomed into a conversation.

Dellas also acknowledges the influence of Dutch portrait painters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, particularly for their use of light.

Really, though, Dellas’ inspirations come less from others’ treatment of the world than from the world in front of him. He is equally driven by what passes between artist and subject in the moments before a shutter clicks as he is by what passes between two friends catching up over coffee–between a horse and jockey with thunder and turf in their ears–between siblings toddling across a studio backdrop like the soft carpet of a playroom–or between a chef and perfectly plated dish making its way to the table.

In Dellas’ approach to his work, and to the idea of work itself, there is an overriding sense of transience–of what is never complete, fleetingly illuminated, always just beyond our reach–of seemingly imminent loss, as well as the hope that answers back in defiance.

Dellas’ restless search for these moments–the ever unfinished, sometimes unspoken conversations, monologues, and questions of our public and private lives–is also the driving force behind Traffic East, the magazine that Dellas has produced since 2001. Progression is what life is about. Passion drives it. Integrity sustains it. This motto–linguistically sitting somewhere between a koan and a script for a luxury car commercial–has appeared in 20 issues of the magazine to date, spanning nearly as many years.

Published (roughly) annually and prominently displayed in boutiques, professional offices, social clubs, and the parlors of the cognoscenti, Traffic East is both a vehicle for some of Dellas’ finest photography and a natural extension of the impulse toward narrative behind that photography. In an arts economy where literary magazines– aside from a few storied glossies by Manhattanites for Manhattanites–are known for being so unessential that even their contributors don’t read them from cover to cover, Traffic East stands out.The balance of copy and photography makes the reading experience akin to flying; the physical design is engaging, even the advertisements (many shot and produced by Dellas) are suggestive of some redeeming element of narrative, rather than commercial, intentionality.

Equally notable is Dellas’ cast of contributors, ranging from Buffalo-based writers Janet McNally, Mick Cochrane, Brian Castner, Eric Gansworth and Jesse Many to civic and arts leaders like Barbara Cole, JoAnn Falletta, and Janne Sirén to internationally acclaimed authors including Joyce Carol Oates and Edwidge Danticat. It has also attracted and offered a home to the likes of Herbert. Hauptman, Nobel Prize-winning mathematician, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Dennis.

Dellas himself steps out from behind the camera’s viewfinder and shows himself to be a prose stylist. Just consider his note in Issue 3, released shortly after September 11, 2001, when Dellas was in New York shooting what would be the issue’s cover photo, a dramatic shot of the Flat Iron Building, soaring up and at an angle, as if in defiance of the world that seemed to tilt and roil below:

Walking down 5th Avenue past the Flat Iron Building, the camaraderie, the silent conversations, the unity and serenity of New York was unlike anything I had seen or experienced before and will forever be etched in my mind. By dusk there were no cars on the streets. I remember a couple rollerblading, holding hands–whipping past me at 31st and Madison. There was one bus. No wind. Crystal clear skies.

Intentionally or unintentionally referring to the magazine’s mission statement, Dellas has described Traffic East as “a work in progress. ”The characterization is essentially the same as the way that he views individual photographs–and, of course, his larger artistic project. It isn’t just unfinished–his approach to art (as to life) is dissatisfied and perpetually in the process of disillusionment, but also radically open to new stories, new perspectives, and hope.

… and thank you for staying with us in Traffic! closes Dellas’ editorial note for Issue 8 (2004).

Talking with Mark Dellas is like this. Viewing a Mark Dellas photograph is like this. We feel the cars brushing by on either side. Standing in the middle of some road–Main Street in Williamsville; Ohio Street by the grain silos where Dellas’ father worked; or maybe Madison Avenue with Andy Warhol–we sense that we have to move on soon, attend to work, family, the maintenance of life. But as with any great conversation–or work of art–a tension keeps us. A word or phrase, a shape, a shadow, that unsettles at the same time that it grounds us to something absolute.

For Mark Dellas, that “something” has always been a story. His life and his art, then, have chased the same elusive purpose as stories do, always and everywhere:

To tell you the truth.

Traffic East:

Mark Dellas: