On Sunday afternoon, the Sheen Center in lower Manhattan hosted its first live event since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020.
Appropriately enough, the reopening was for a photographic exhibit called “Portraits of Grace,” now handsomely displayed in the gallery at the Bleecker Street center. The exhibit was conceived to honor the “heroes” of the Covid-19 pandemic such as doctors and nurses and other first responders as well as priests, consecrated men and women and dedicated lay people who brought the Gospel message of hope at a time of uncertainty and even despair.
Photographer Jeffrey Bruno, whose images appear in Catholic New York, is the curator of “Portraits of Grace.” Speaking personally, it’s always a good occasion when Bruno agrees to take on an assignment for Catholic New York. Not only is he a skilled photographer, his strong Catholic faith resonates in the work he produces.
When we spoke last week, Bruno said the opportunity to curate the exhibit came as a complete “surprise.” Bruno met with Amanda Bowman, a new board member at the Sheen Center who is founder and chair of the Anglosphere Society, as well as Mercedes Lopez Anderson, assistant director of communications for the archdiocese, who talked to him about a project that would look at the Catholic response to the pandemic.
They didn’t have to ask Bruno twice. “You know me, my whole vocation is to present the beauty and the mission of the Church,” Bruno said. “Immediately, I was like, I want to do this.”
The project was also a good match with his experience, which includes seven years as a photo editor with Aleteia, the Catholic online publisher. While he had a lot of experience in photo research, the “Portraits of Grace” installation was his first physical exhibit.
A curious thing happened as Bruno set out this summer to locate local images to tell the Covid-19 story. As he began contacting photographers, he found such images in short supply. Many either weren’t shooting at the time, or hadn’t been permitted to because of necessary restrictions at hospitals, nursing homes and churches. Even big photo agencies weren’t able to help.
“I wasn’t prepared for the lack of images,” he said.
When Bruno was finally able to find a photographer with hospital images from the pandemic, he spent a considerable amount of time tracking him down. It turned out that Lee Weissman’s images were worth waiting for. Now an employee of Northwell Health, he had been inside their facilities “from Day 1” of the pandemic.
“He assembled what is probably the greatest body of work of the pandemic, period,” Bruno said. “Across the country, there is nobody who had that kind of access.”
There is a “heroic quality” to Weissman’s work as well, Bruno said, because he went back day after day, submitting himself and his family to the uncertainties that entailed.
For his contributions, Weissman was honored with the first Portraits of Grace Award at the Sheen Center discussion held at the reopening Sept. 19.
Cardinal Dolan, during the discussion moderated by Ms. Bowman, spoke about hospital workers who told him they didn’t know where their strength was coming from, but that they were grateful for their faith.
“People saw a divine initiative, a divine activity, through other people—the professionals,” the cardinal said.
The 27 photographs in “Portraits of Grace” have been carefully arranged and together they show how health care workers, hospital chaplains, Catholic Charities food drive organizers and many others responded to the Covid crisis.
In all, Bruno assembled 223 images for “Portraits of Grace.” Among those who made a significant contribution was Catholic News Service photographer Gregory Shemitz.
The exhibit, which runs through Oct. 4, promises to be the first of several related endeavors by the Sheen Center with the support of the Knights of Columbus and the Anglosphere Society.