Alexandria’s North Columbus Street is a sociologist’s dream. The 100, 200, and 300 blocks are affluent, the 400 and 500 blocks are medium-income, and 600 through 900 get poorer as you go. The residents vary widely: from young to old, from ancestral Virginia families to recent immigrants, from white to black to Hispanic to Asian. Ironically, it wasn’t a sociologist who found North Columbus Street significant; it was an artist. The 500 block of North Columbus is where Mary Noël McMillian found herself in 1990a budding photographer and corporate attorney who had recently quit law to take care of her newborn son, Christopher.
She began while walking around the neighborhood with Christopher. “A number of old, retired people would be sitting on their front porches,” she recalls. “We’d go around into the alleys picking mint and mulberries, and I’d hang over the fence talking to people on front steps. That’s how I discovered that the street I lived on had a history. When I visited, I began bringing a camera, took their pictures, and gave them the prints. A couple of people said they had not had their portrait done in 50 years, and some had never had one done. I loved what happened to me when I took their picturesI got a real physical reaction of exhilaration. It was something very close to joy.”
McMillian decided to become an artist full time, even turning down a plea by her old firm, Hogan & Hartson, to return to the law. Since she began to shoot on North Columbus, McMillian estimates, she’s taken 40,000 images. She’s also begun to understand the deep-seated emotions and desires of her neighborssomething, she says, she never thought she’d be able to do. “I’ll get calls from people saying, ‘We’re having a birthday partycome down and bring that camera!’” she says. “Or, ‘Go across the street and take a photo of Mr. So-and-Sohe has a great face.’”
After nine years, McMillian’s laborsand her substantial up-front expensesare beginning to pay off. To honor the city’s 250th birthday, Alexandria’s city government and several other entities (including Hogan & Hartson) have awarded grants that have allowed her to mount her first-ever solo shows, which open simultaneously this month at Alexandria’s Athenaeum. “On North Columbus Street: Looking for Home” includes a couple of dozen prints, some quite large, with inky black tones and shimmering whites, all infused with a specific sense of place. Each is meticulously posed; “To me,” McMillian says, “‘stagey’ is not a bad term.” The other show, “Small Mysteries,” consists of images of children, influenced by the work of Sally Mann. McMillian considers these photographs to be even more deeply infused with symbolic and emotional content than the Columbus Street images. “My stuff,” she says, “is getting a lot more spiritual.”
And the neighborhood links go on: McMillian’s subjects have all been invited to the April 11 opening reception. All she had to do was walk down the street and pop invitations into each mailbox.
Both shows are on display April 11 through May 22 at the Athenaeum, 201 Prince St., Alexandria. McMillian will give a gallery talk Sunday, April 25, at 2 p.m. For details, call (703) 548-0035.