Agostini’s ‘Portraits’ keep social realism in focus

by Pam Harbaugh

Every now and then, people ask Dominic Agostini why he doesn’t focus his lens on beautiful people in beautiful places. But the photographer whose portraits are currently on view in Melbourne’s Eau Gallie arts district can’t wrap his mind around that narrow point of view.
“There’s so much beauty in everyday people in everyday life,” he said. “It’s right in front of you. Sometimes you have to add a little bit of lighting to drive it home.”
Indeed, “Dominic Agostini Portraits” breathes in that humanity. The exhibition was installed last week in the gallery of the Foosaner Education Center across the street from the Foosaner Art Museum. It comprises 14 works, most 20 inches by 30 inches, and all silver halide photographs.
The portraits range from the unknown to the familiar. In one image, you see a young woman perched with a guitar against a sand dune, and another image is of a worker resting on his muddied tractor. There are also those portraits of people celebrated in Brevard’s cultural circles: the late artist Dexter Johnston, sitting so proudly among her beloved art collection; and the unmistakable hands of the artist and philanthropist Ruth Funk, with whom Agostini worked frequently.
In all, Agostini invites the viewer to consider people in their own environment. To visit with them, as it were.
“I think Dominic’s work really speaks to that movement of social realism,” said Carla Funk, Florida Tech director of museums, which include the Foosaner and the Ruth Funk Center for Textile Art on the campus of Florida Tech.
Funk, who is no relation to the late philanthropist, wanted to have the Agostini exhibition run concurrently with the Foosaner Museum’s current show, “Pan American Modernism: Avant Garde Art in Latin America and the United States,” which has a “big component” of social realists photographers. Both exhibits reveal a “grace and dignity” to ordinary people.
Art patrons here respond enthusiastically to the medium, she said. Past photographic exhibitions, including those of works by Clyde Butcher, Annie Leibovitz and Leon Herschtritt, kept breaking attendance records.
“We have a lot of photographs in our permanent collection,” Funk said. “Every time I pull out photographs, people seem drawn to them.”
Adding to these factors is the community’s familiarity with Agostini’s work. He was the photographer for Ruth Funk’s two art books, “Cloth and Culture” and “Dolls Et Cetera,” and has done commercial work for Melbourne ad agencies.
“He’s really well liked in the community,” Carla Funk said. “He’s an active surfer and an avid fisherman. He’s also incredibly generous and volunteers for different organizations. He really loves people. That comes across in his portraits.”
Despite his acclaim, this is the 39-year old photographer’s first exhibition since college.
He was not expecting the opportunity to come knocking on his door. Most of his work is commercial and ends up on websites or catalogues rather than as a “picture on the wall.”
“It really wasn’t on my radar,” he said. “I’m very excited about it. There it is, in a gallery space that I have a great deal of respect for – the Frits van Eeden Gallery. I was actually working there when the dedication occurred. I never thought I’d have an opportunity to show.”
(Frits van Eeden is an internationally acclaimed artist who lives in Melbourne and in his homeland of The Netherlands. He is much beloved in Brevard’s art community and by its patrons.)
Agostini calls his work “environmental portraits,” which always gets him into explanation mode: They have nothing to do with the climate, but instead are people in their own environments – where they live or how they make a living.
Born in Trinidad, Agostini grew up with a father who flew for the old BWIA commercial airlines and a mother who worked in the insurance industry. The family moved to Miami, Dallas, Chicago and finally to Brevard.
After graduating from high school, he began studying business at the University of Illinois in Chicago. But photography lured him to switch to Columbia College in Chicago and get a degree in photography.
He has always been drawn to portraits.
While he works toward achieving sophisticated lighting, both natural and artificial, in his photographs, Agostini will ask his subjects to just be themselves.
“One of the things I like to do in most of my photography is to see what people do on their own,” he said. “So I might ask somebody to stand or sit somewhere but I don’t tell them how. Direction only comes in if it’s not very interesting.”
In his photograph entitled “Darren,” which shows the image of a man sitting on his tractor, Agostini got the subject to just be himself.
The man, Darren – we don’t learn his last name – oversees work at the historic Field Manor, one of Brevard’s original homesteads. The University of Central Florida was conducting a shoreline study there and someone connected to the study called Agostini.
“That was one of those scenarios, when someone said ‘Hey would you go photograph that project? They don’t have a budget, but they’re doing something cool,’” he said. “There’s a lot of really interesting stories out there that people aren’t going to photograph because there’s no money to photograph it.”
But that didn’t stop Agostini. He went anyway and found a most compelling subject.
Darren had parked the tractor in the shade of a tree, so Agostini balanced artificial light with the sunlight to capture the image.
“He was pretty much being himself,” Agostini said.
But that simple lighting balance and a heroic reverence for humanity sings out to Funk, who says the image relates to the “social realists” genre of photography.
Agostini enjoys seeing how different people respond to different photographs, especially those of Dexter Johnston and Dr. B. Frank Brown. Johnston, known mostly as Dexter, was an artist known for her eccentricity and for being a walking encyclopedia of Brevard’s visual art scene, from its beginnings through its sizeable growth. Brown was an innovative Brevard County Public Schools superintendent and also an avid gardener who had numerous patents on plants he cross-bred.
“There’s a visual connection,” he said. “For example, the photograph of Dr. Brown, that photo really generated a connection I didn’t expect.
“And Dexter. She was fantastic. In her tiny little shoebox apartment, she really enjoyed spending the time (with Agostini) but didn’t want to spend much time taking pictures.”
When asked what he hopes viewers will get from the exhibition, Agostini at first demurred, suggesting that a portrait is a “personal thing” and that looking at a picture of a stranger can evoke all sorts of reactions.
“If I had to pick, I think the beauty of humanity in every day people,” he said. “For me, I just like to see how people respond.”

DOMINIC AGOSTINI PORTRAITS runs through Sept. 22 in the Frits van Eeden Gallery in the Renee Foosaner Education Center, 520 Highland Ave., Melbourne. Works also appear in the Center’s lobby area. Admission is free. The gallery is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, as well as from 5:30-7:30 p.m. the first Friday of each month. Call 321-674-8923 or visit FoosanerMuseum.org.

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