"Do you take pictures of all kinds of couples?"
The question caught Anchorage photographer Shalem Mathew off guard when a woman he was shooting posed it to him. The query would become the catalyst for an artistic effort that has gained national attention and is now set to expand from Alaska to other states.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"Like two girls?" The woman and her female partner had approached two other local photo studios to do a portrait of them together and had been turned down.
Mathew explained that he and Mitch Kitter, with whom he operates the Treft.Punkt photo studio, were a gay couple. "So I think we're OK with it."
When the session was over, he relayed the conversation to his partner.
"I got really emotional," Kitter told the Daily News. He made the snap decision to offer professional portraits to as many gay and lesbian couples as he and Mathew could accommodate. "I posted on Facebook, 'Love is love. Who wants to get their photo taken?'
"Right away, we had five couples sign up."
The list grew to 28 before the Treft.Punkt team closed the list, though another four couples were added later. Participants included not only same-sex couples and families from Anchorage, but people from Fairbanks and Nome as well.
The Treft.Punkt Creative Studio operates pretty much like any other photography business. The tidy, airy shop on Fifth Avenue sports a collection of vintage cameras, luggage and furniture, some of which finds its way into the pictures displayed on the walls. The bread-and-butter jobs are graduation and wedding pictures. But Mathew and Kitter also have an interest in "conceptual fashion work," which Kitter described as photography that adds a narrative element. "We like to tell stories through images, sets, models and props."
As with movie-making, such work can involve as much talking and direction as actual picture-taking. The interaction between cameraman and subject is something the studio stresses. Kitter and Mathew applied the approach to their "Love is Love" shoots.
"What we like to do with what we called our 'Love Story' sessions is have a conversation. We ask the couple what they like about each other, what they do together, what was their first date, what makes them tick," Kitter said.
As a result, the images in the series have the quality of art intended to accompany a magazine article. Couples are shown with kayaks, four-wheelers and bicycles, and playing a muddy game of rubgy. They are posed in settings special to the couples, some with their children, often outdoors.
The backdrops and items in the pictures (such as paddles and sporting gear) say something about each couple individually. The goal of portraiture is to tell us something about the person in the frame; in this case some of the pictures could be spun into novels of imaginative complexity.
Collectively, however, the theme that connects them all is simple and elemental: committed love.
The finished work went on display at the studio on Oct. 5, 2013, and neither Kitter or Mathew were prepared for the response.
"It was huge," Kitter recalled. "Normally for a First Friday reception, we get about 100 guests. For this, we had 760. There were people out the door. When my mom pulled up, she thought someone was protesting the show. But that wasn't it.
"What was most cool and interesting was the diversity of people who came. They weren't who you'd think of as traditional LGBT supporters. All races, all religions. People were there to see the show and that was really great."
So great that Kitter and Mathew decided to take the project to a bigger stage. The two are first and foremost Alaskans; Mathew moved here when he was 10 and Kitter, now a business major at the University of Alaska Anchorage, has lived here all his life. But they're ready to step outside Alaska with "Love is Love" and are currently involved in a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to make similar couples' photos in other states.
The project has caught the attention of blog sites in the Lower 48, including the prominent Huffington Post.
"Our first thought was to take photos in states facing marriage equality issues," Kitter said, meaning places where things like gay marriage are in play. "But then we were told we should do the photos in states where it's not happening anytime soon -- Louisiana, Arizona."
They set a goal of $25,000 to make a loop through the Midwest. That goal had been met by mid-January and the pair reset their plans.
"If we can get to $30,000, we'll do the Midwest and then, next November, go to the South," Kitter said. "If we reach our 'stretch goal,' $50,000, then we'll go to all 50 states."
The Kickstarter campaign is scheduled (on purpose) to end at midnight on Valentine's Day, Feb. 14. "We thought it would be a great Valentine's gift to make a donation in someone's name and continue to share the love," Kitter said.
The best case scenario for the team is that their work will have an effect on attitudes and be more productive than the rancor generated by ballot initiatives, politicians, judges, editorialists and even Hollywood.
In a video included on the Kickstarter site, Mathew says, "I want people to look at these pictures and see something that's out of their life, out of their experience, but that they can't dispute.
"Maybe they don't agree with the lifestyle or they don't agree with the politics of it, but they can at least see that someone is genuinely happy and fulfilled by being in this relationship."
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM