A friend once asked photographer Chuck Mintz to identify his most prized possession.
Mintz pondered the question, but ultimately admitted he couldn't settle on one. He had a lot of stuff, all of varying value. But as for his most meaningful, his most precious?
"I could not answer the question, and it bothered me," says Mintz, who lives in Cleveland.
The question eventually inspired him to begin photographing people holding the items they consider most special.
Now, 172 portraits later, Mintz has a collection he calls Precious Objects. Twenty-five pieces from that series will be exhibited at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage starting Aug. 21 and running through Sept. 30.
In one photo, a man holds a dime his grandfather gave to him the day he died. In another, a woman shows the tiny yellow dress she wore as a 3-month-old the day her adoptive parents brought her home. Another woman holds a letter written from her mother, who died giving birth.
Included with the photos are short, handwritten letters from each subject.
"The statements started to get, in some cases, stunning," Mintz says.
Some were funny, too. One man, photographed holding his father's dentures, wrote: "My father was never very talkative, so when he died, I kept his false teeth. Now I keep his teeth and talk to him every morning. He still doesn't say much, but I am hopeful."
About one-third of the subjects in the photos exhibited at the Maltz Museum are Jewish, as is Mintz, but that's not what the exhibit is about. It's about values and how we represent them.
"There are things outside my own culture that I barely understand ... that I find admirable," he says. "That is all we can do: Look around at those things in our society that have value and embrace them."
Mintz became a full-time photographer in 2008. That transition also signaled a shift in his subjects, moving away from the distant urban landscapes with unidentifiable people that he had focused on as a hobby. Once Mintz made photography his career, he finally had time to contemplate what he wanted to communicate, leading him to more intimate topics.
Mintz was in the process of sorting through his own life when his friend had asked him the question about his most prized possession. He was moving to a smaller house and found himself deciding which items to hold on to and which to let go. It's partly why he had such a difficult time coming up with one thing that he most cherished. He wanted to keep everything.
Mintz did ultimately settle on a precious object of his own. Precious Objects includes a self-portrait of him holding his father's drafting set from East Technical High School in Cleveland.
"Dad was a very talented guy," Mintz says. "He got a great education in the Cleveland public schools and was very proud of this drafting set."
There's another connection too: A drafting set helps develop an artistic concept into something tangible. But from Mintz's point of view, that same item — along with each of those featured in his Precious Objects photographs — does just the opposite. It represents the tangible and commonplace as something meaningful and ethereal.
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