Michael Clinton's American Portraits



It's hard to look at this forthcoming volume featuring glossy color portraits of 93 Americans without thinking about the current immigration debate. But Clinton, a South Hills native who's ascended to the heights of the magazine industry, doesn't seem to have meant it that way: He just likes America's diversity -- looking at people's faces and hearing their stories. 

Clinton, 55, is executive vice president, chief marketing officer and publishing director for Hearst Magazines. He oversees 15 publications, including Esquire, O: The Oprah Magazine and Seventeen. The Pitt grad is also a photographer and inveterate traveler, with 120 countries on his passport and three other books to his credit, including Wanderlust: 100 Countries.

American Portraits (Glitterati Incorporated) was inspired in Lithuania, when Clinton saw a woman who looked like she could have been his grandmother's sister -- though arguably, the book really began in Pittsburgh, with visits to his Lithuanian grandparents themselves, who lived on the South Side.

On his return from Lithuania to the States, Clinton (whose father's side of the family is English and Irish) started asking Americans he met (most of them strangers) their stories and ethnic backgrounds.  

While he was "shocked," he says, how many Americans don't know their ethnicities, he collected great stories about families from all over the world fleeing persecution, seeking economic opportunity and more. Ancestries he documented in the book range from Native American to Turkish, Welsh to Bangledeshi, Pakistani to Haitian -- 100 in all.

One of the more complex geneaologies, in fact, is claimed by the book's lone Pittsburgh-born sitter, Adam Brunk. Brunk (pictured), a friend of Clinton's family from Mount Lebanon who's now in Philadelphia, has Cherokee, French, German, Sri Lankan, Swiss and Yemeni ancestry.

In Clinton's handsomely lit studio portraits, we see a wonderful variety of faces. On the whole, it should be said, the collection paints Americans as a decidedly photogenic lot; half of these folks could model.

Moreover, they're a pretty well-heeled bunch. A handful of teachers and an elevator operator notwithstanding, typical occupations include architect, real-estate broker, veterinarian and opthamalogist.

If you're thinking about immigration, it might strike you that our debate over things like Arizona's repressive new law aren't about such highly educated, well paid folks (all of whom are American citizens, so born or naturalized). It's more frequently waged over the heads of people looking to scrape a living together on a construction site or landscaping crew.

From the first European invasion on, "[W]e have always been a country of immigrants," says Clinton, by phone from New York.

"Every group went through its acculturation period when it was tough for them as a group," he adds, recalling, for instance, the nativist prejudice against 19th-century Irish newcomers.

I ask him whether putting the book together gave him any insight into today's immigration debate.

"Hasn't it always been a debate?" he says. "It's never changed. Yet at the end of the day, we welcome all people."


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