Acclaimed Photographer Michael Collopy Speaks on “The Humanity of Service”

Acclaimed Photographer Michael Collopy Speaks on “The Humanity of Service”

Guest post contributed by Canizaro Library staff members Abigail Starcher (Library Associate) and William Szwagiel (Librarian). 

On Thursday, October 27th, 2016, world-renowned photographer Michael Collopy visited Ave Maria University to present a talk on his exhibit, “The Humanity of Service,” which is currently on display on the second floor of the Canizaro Library. The exhibit consists of portraits of notable figures ranging from world leaders, to celebrities, philanthropists, and religious. The common thread that links these individuals is their dedication to service; it is this same dedication that ultimately drew Collopy to a career in photography.

[Above: Michael Collopy takes time to sign copies of his photo documentary book on the Missionaries of Charity, “Works of Love are Works of Peace.”]

The event on Thursday began with an introduction from AMU President Jim Towey, who shared memories of his friendship with Collopy. President Towey was followed by the Director of Library Services, Jennifer Nodes, who offered a heartfelt welcome and introduction to Collopy and his work. Collopy took a moment to thank President Towey and Director Nodes for his invitation and welcome everyone in the audience. 

Collopy began by offering the story of how he became a photographer. As a child, he would visit museums and galleries nearly every weekend with his parents, both of whom were artists (his father, George Collopy, was an internationally acclaimed graphic artist). 

When it came to college, Collopy began by following in his father’s footsteps and sought a degree in graphic design. Ultimately, however, he had difficulty finding a job that was creative within this field. Then while visiting the Oakland Museum, Collopy found himself deeply moved by the work of Ansel Adams, which was on display at the time. This led Collopy to seek out Adams, and through their eventual friendship, Collopy was inspired to pursue a career in photography.

His first big client was none other than Frank Sinatra, and Collopy would go on to photograph many famous entertainers and celebrities. During his talk at AMU, he took the audience through images of several well-known individuals, from Frank Sinatra and Quincy Jones to Clint Eastwood and George Clooney.  As he moved through the images, he shared several anecdotes about his experiences working with these individuals. For example, while photographing Matt Damon, Collopy explained that Damon was constantly giving him tips on how properly to pitch a baseball, because Collopy was scheduled to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game the following day. Evidently, Damon had gained some infamy for overthrowing the catcher when he was called to throw out the first pitch at a game. When their session ended, Damon told Collopy that if he did not see Collopy on YouTube the following day, he would know that things went well.

Collopy went on to note that while he enjoyed working with entertainers, he was particularly drawn to individuals who lived a life of service to others, and he credited the impetus for this desire with an experience he had as a child. When he was ten years old, his parents brought his family to see Robert Kennedy, who at the time was running for President. He explained that this moment held great significance for him, because it was the first time that he had met someone who had dedicated his life in service to others. The impact of this moment was perhaps magnified by the fact that Kennedy was assassinated a mere two months later.

From here, Collopy presented images of portraits he had taken of similar individuals who worked to help others, several of which are on display in the Canizaro Library exhibit, “The Humanity of Service.”  The list of subjects ranged from Clint Hill, the secret service agent who leapt onto the vehicle in which John F. and Jackie Kennedy were riding when Kennedy was assassinated, to Rudy Giuliani, whose portrait was taken mere days after the September 11th terrorist attacks. 

Other subjects of his portraits included Immaculée Ilibagiza and Malala Yousafzai. At one point, Collopy amusingly stated that he had taken a portrait of the next President of the United States–and then showed portraits of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

One image Collopy shared was a portrait he took of Nelson Mandela that held special meaning for him.  The portrait showed Mandela conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in the African National Anthem. This image in particular was significant for Collopy, because, as he explained, after Mandela passed away, Collopy saw some footage of Mandela’s office. Framed on a wall in Mandela’s office was this very image.

The final subject Collopy covered was of his good friend, Mother Teresa. He met Mother Teresa while he was in San Francisco working with Frank Sinatra.  She was to give a speech at Grace Cathedral, and Collopy, who had arrived late to the event, just happened to run into Mother Teresa by chance downstairs in the basement. She asked him what he did for work, and he told her that he was an independent photographer, which prompted her to provide him with her business card. Collopy remembered finding it strangely amusing that Mother Teresa had a business card.

She invited him to visit her at her home in San Francisco the following day. When he arrived the next day, she asked him to drive her to her various appointments in San Francisco, thus beginning what would go on to be a 15-year long friendship. Collopy said that he once asked her why she never seemed to judge anyone she encountered, and she replied, “I never judge anyone, because it doesn’t allow me the time to love them.” She would later challenge Collopy to smile at someone he did not like at least eight times a day, something Collopy admitted he still had difficulty doing.

Collopy explained that Mother Teresa’s desire to live in service to others stemmed from an image of the Crucified Christ and the quote, “I thirst,” from John 19:28.  More than thirsting for a drink of water, Mother Teresa believed that Jesus Christ was thirsting for souls to come back to him, and it was this belief that drove her. In describing the image of the Crucified Christ to Collopy, Mother Teresa said to look at Jesus’ arms spread wide to hold him. In that image, she saw something pure and innocent. Collopy noted that she looked upon Jesus as if she were looking at her spouse. He described her as having an amazing energy, and that prayer rejuvenated her.

One of his portraits of Mother Teresa served as the basis for Mother Teresa’s official canonization image. A black-and-white portrait was recreated in color as a painting, and Collopy assisted the painter in making sure the coloring was just right. The exhaustive process even involved a discussion about just how wide to make Mother Teresa’s halo. The completed image was displayed in Saint Peter’s Square during the canonization of Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Collopy, who attended Mother Teresa’s canonization, found it difficult to express how truly incredible an experience this was.

Collopy concluded his talk by once again thanking President Towey and Director Nodes for the invitation to speak. He shared his hopes that his work might inspire others, particularly the students of Ave Maria University, to always desire, as he does, to give back in whatever they do, and to, paraphrasing Mahatma Gandhi, “find themselves by losing themselves in the service of others.”