Portland Photographer’s Award-Winning Children’s Portrait Book Republished

Images from “Hair Dance!” are on display at the restaurant Arrowood through July 31.

A young girl's pigtails fly behind her in an image from "Hair Dance!" (Kelly Ruthe Johnson)

Though the images are nearly 20 years old, Portland-born photographer Kelly Johnson’s mid-’00s portraits of young Black girls still hold a timeless quality. Her subjects don’t sport any Y2K-era trends in their clothes or hairstyles, and don’t have any signature poses from the era, like peace signs or MySpace duck lips. Instead, the photos highlight the girls’ individual quirks and personalities while radiating classic joy and milewide smiles.

The portraits became Hair Dance! (Macmillan Publishing, 2007, 32 pages, $8.99), with accompanying poetry by Dinah Johnson. Now, nearly two decades later, the book is being reissued by Square Fish. Additionally, metal sheet prints from Hair Dance! are currently on view at the restaurant Arrowood on the corner of Northeast 59th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard through July 31.

Johnson was partially inspired to compile Hair Dance! as an homage to her mother’s family, who founded Dean’s Beauty Salon & Barber Shop. On first release, it won a Bank Street College of Education award for Children’s Book of the Year in 2008. As the portraits now face a new audience, Johnson worries less about file resolution and fashion trends making her portraits seem like historic documents, but rather her subjects’ boundless delight.

“The world changed and children changed and the view changed,” she says. “I believe what I’ve done is documented an era that might be gone. The girls I documented were like the girls I grew up with, the neighborhood of girls who had self-expression—and I’m not saying they don’t now, but it was a different thing, camaraderie…that pride, and that elegance that kids took in themselves, but it was also a testament to their parents and how we were raised.”

An accomplished portrait photographer and former Oregonian photojournalist, Johnson will attend the show’s reception on Wednesday, July 10. She also believes some of her original subjects, now grown up, will also visit her show. Johnson hopes to document those women looking back on their childhoods with her camera.

“Maybe it’s time for people to revisit the beauty and the glory of these girls,” Johnson says. “Not girls that are fixed up for portraits. These are girls that are embracing their everyday moments with pride. Hair is huge in our community, and these girls are wearing it well.”

During a salon-style artist talk Johnson will host on Wednesday, July 24, she hopes guests will share stories about their hair, or instances of joy from their lives that will inspire other attendees.

“I want Hair Dance! to be an invitation to joy, to love, to care, for people to look and say, this makes me feel good inside. This exists, and it existed,” she says. “I find it incredible—any image is a document, you know? It’s our greatest memory.”

Copies of Hair Dance! are available through powells.com.

SEE IT: Hair Dance! Exhibition at Arrowood, 5846 NE Sandy Blvd., 971-373-8049, arrowoodportland.com. Noon–9 pm Friday–Sunday, 4 pm–9 pm Tuesday–Thursday, July 1–31. Free. All ages.

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