When you scroll through a photographer’s Instagram feed, you might expect to see professional portraits, behind-the-scenes images, or candid pictures of family and friends. What you probably don’t expect to see is photo after photo of a dilapidated town—one that’s 900 miles away from where the photographer lives.
But that’s exactly what you find with Matthew Hodgman, a Minneapolis-based photographer whose new book, 15104, is the result of a series of extended trips he took last year to Braddock, Pennsylvania.
Hodgman grew up in southern Minnesota surrounded by a compassionate family that taught him countless lessons on charity and empathy. But his connection to Braddock grew out of something more personal. Years ago, he was in the midst of a divorce when he saw a NOW on PBS segment titled “A Town Revitalized” about Braddock—a once-vibrant-now-dying steel town in Pennsylvania—and its 6-foot, 8-inch Harvard-educated mayor, John Fetterman.
After the show, Hodgman emailed Fetterman, starting a correspondence that would eventually lead him to take several trips to the Pennsylvania town. He initially went to take part in Braddock Smiles, which connects photographers to low income families in need of family portraits. The project was established after twin three-year-old boys were killed in a house fire in town, and it was revealed that the only photo of the boys was taken on a cell phone—the family had never been able to afford a proper portrait.
Families who are photographed for Braddock Smiles receive an 8-by-10 framed portrait, and two 5-by-7 portraits, a CD of images, and a handwritten note from Hodgman. That personal touch isn’t necessary, of course, but it’s one of Hodgman’s favorite parts of the process. When one local resident got his note, she began sobbing, simply because a stranger had recognized how much she does to help her grandkids. “It’s experiences like that that have really changed my perspective, and my life,” he says.
“There’s nothing in the world that feels like doing this to me now,” Hodgman says. And though he still considers Minnesota home, he sees Braddock becoming a larger part of his life. “Being a part of this and not expecting a damn thing in return is the best feeling I’ve ever had.”
Initially, Hodgman came to Braddock simply to offer some help. But he ended up falling in love. It happened between photo shoots for Braddock Smiles, when he began exploring the town: climbing into abandoned steel mills, exploring the sights and features of Braddock that longtime residents often ignore, like the bridge covered in crawling vine. The book is the product of that love affair, and it includes images of Braddock along with special memories Hodgman had while photographing each place he features. In addition to the coffee table book, available at Uptown’s Motto, Hodgman is also selling matted prints of Braddock on his website. The profits from both are going back to Braddock, to help with a summer youth project.
Despite all he’s done, Hodgman feels like Braddock has done more done for him than he’s done for it: “I think Braddock found me, in a time when I really needed it. The people there have become my family . . . I never had it in my mind that I was going to do something out there to help me, I just wanted to be a part of something that was happening there.”
Find 15104 at Motto boutique. Proceeds benefit the Braddock Youth Project, a summer program for kids. $95 at Motto, 3105 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-545-5636, or at matthewhodgman.com