The Museum of Art – DeLand will feature the exhibition “Renato Rampolla: Dignity – The Light Within,” a series of striking, yet sensitive, portraits of the homeless taken by Tampa photographer Renato Rampolla. The exhibition opens Friday, Jan. 8, at the museum’s 600 N. Woodland Blvd. location.
Rampolla said he literally grew up on the campus of Sarasota’s Ringling College of Art and Design, where his father, Frank, was an artist and instructor, and later at the University of South Florida, after his father accepted a position there.
After his father’s untimely death in 1971, when Rampolla was 11, his father’s artist friends remained close to the family.
Rampolla had learned the basics of photography from his father and later took classes with Tampa photographer Suzanne Camp Crosby. He also studied sculpture and composition, but decided to major in history in college. After graduation, he chose a career in real estate.
Rampolla said he has long enjoyed taking rambling walks around Tampa, often carrying his digital single-lens reflex camera. One day in 2016, he engaged an apparently homeless man in conversation.
“I was curious about his circumstances, and respectful in my approach. He, in turn, was eager for the distraction of a conversation, and appreciative of my interest in him. It was fun for both of us,” Rampolla said.
Rampolla asked if he could take a few photos of the man, and recalled that his subject readily agreed, and seemed to enjoy posing for him.
“I went home and printed some 5-by-7-inch copies of my photos to give to him. When I tracked him down a few days later, he had no recollection of being photographed,” Rampolla said. “He was off his medications.”
That interaction spurred Rampolla’s interest in meeting and photographing more street people, first in Tampa and then around the country.
“I rediscovered my passion for art, and my curiosity about the human condition,” a trait he said he probably inherited from both his father, whose work reflected strong humanist themes, and his mother, Doris, a therapist who worked with abused children.
Rampolla approaches his subjects by offering food, water and perhaps an article of clothing, and then sits with them for a conversation.
“The homeless don’t always get treated as ‘normal people,’ and my aim is to give them the normality — and dignity — they deserve.”
Rampolla always gains permission before photographing his subjects. He uses a 28 mm lens, which he says allows him to get quite close to his subject, often less than a foot away.
“I literally want to feel their breath. I want to feel what they feel,” he said.
The portrait series also emphasizes Rampolla’s baroque-influenced technique.
“My father had introduced me to the work of the Italian artist Caravaggio, who pioneered the use of chiaroscuro, which employs strong contrasts between light and dark, and who painted his subjects in a very realistic way. You see that in my work.”
In 2018, Rampolla published a book of his photos, Dignity No Matter What, which highlights about 40 of the homeless people he has photographed. He donates all proceeds from the sale of the book to charities that work with the homeless. A limited number of the books will be available in the museum’s gift shop at 100 N. Woodland Blvd. in Downtown DeLand.
Pattie Pardee, Museum of Art – DeLand’s executive director, noted that the museum’s Chris Harris Gallery in their 600 N. Woodland Blvd. location is well-suited for the exhibition.
“The strength of Ron’s work is in the intimacy he achieves with his subjects; the intimate setting of the Harris Gallery really enhances the viewer’s own engagement with the photos.”
“Renato Rampolla: Dignity – The Light Within” opens Friday, Jan. 8, and runs through March 28. Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and 1-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission costs $5, but is free to museum members, children age 12 and younger, and all Volusia County Schools and Stetson University students.