Sanchez Frames a Fab Forty

Ace portraitist Danny Sanchez — pictured at work and in a self-snap — helps the Monmouth County Arts Council celebrate a milestone anniversary with FORTY FACES, a display of studio studies that marks his first-ever solo gallery exhibit.

The way Danny Sanchez tells it, “I’m basically a working stiff…I don’t think of anything I do in terms of artistic value; I’m just fortunate to be shooting stuff that people like.”

Regardless of how he spins it, however, the veteran portrait paparazzo — a fixture of Red Bank life for decades — has long been a sought-after snapster for scores of headshot hopefuls, CEOs, celebs, senior partners and cherished toddlers.

It stands to reason then that when the Monmouth County Arts Council went looking to assemble a little gallery exhibit in honor of the nonprofit org’s 40th anniversary, they called on the man who’s quietly amassed a groaning file cabinet full of faces — the faces of the people who make the arts happen here in Monmouth County. The visionaries and the volunteers; the educators and the entertainers. The manipulators of paint and pen and pixels, or the sculptors in sound and stone. The character players and choreographers; the philanthropists, and the occasional phreeloader.

The exhibit called Forty Faces — with a tip of the hat to the concurrent 20th birthday of the Two River Times — goes up on the evening of Friday, June 10 with a 6pm reception inside the Pollak Gallery on the West Long Branch campus of Monmouth University. It’s a display of images culled from nearly a quarter century’s worth of Sanchez favorites — and, incredible as it may seem, it’s the first-ever gallery exhibit that the veteran lensman has ever consented to.

The cast of the now-playing Two River Theater Company production of JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL, in a promotional shot by TRTC’s next door neighbor Danny Sanchez.

Sanchez, who moved into his present studio space next door to the Two River Theater some five years ago (after lording over lower Broad Street for ages in the old Natelson’s building) could be forgiven for not spending too many precious work hours pondering his legacy. Behind the easygoing, Tommy Chong-ish demeanor is an unpretentious, consummate pro with a natural knack for drawing out the quintessence in his subjects — and, as the artist explains, “I have a life;” one that revolves around such passions as cars, sports (particularly baseball) and “making eats.”

For a while there, Sanchez was also publisher of his own magazine, d. — a keepsake-quality coffeetabler that was as delightfully freewheeling in subject matter as it was meticulously designed. Expensive to produce, and unfortunately born into an economic climate that would soon drive the upscale local print market to the brink of extinction, the periodical that Sanchez described (in a 2007 interview with redbankgreen) as being “about all of us, really…and life” would bite the dust before he could distribute his completed fourth issue — although not before sacrificing his beloved used Ferrari to the cause.

Seemingly unscarred by his experiences in the aftercrash business landscape of the past several years, Danny Sanchez considers himself a lucky guy — one for whom “a whole world has opened up to me through photography. You don’t learn about life unless you are dealing with people young and old, and I’m fortunate to be able to be doing this.”

Still game for investigating new aspects of his calling, the photographer came around to the idea of organizing a gallery retrospective, after being asked several times by Arts Council executive director Mary Eileen Fouratt.

“I thought, well, don’t take it so lightly,” says Sanchez of the MCAC’s entreaties. “I’ll probably be glad I did this later on.”

For the organization founded in 1971 as an offshoot of the Junior League of Monmouth County, the decision to use Sanchez’s work exclusively was a non-controversy from the get-go. The parade of musicians, actors, writers, artists, models, dancers and administrators who have visited  the photog’s studios have guaranteed him a place as both a chronicler and a creative force in an ongoing mission to passionately promote this corner of the Garden State as the mecca for words, music, galleries, theater and arts education that it has undoubtedly become.

As Fouratt explains, choosing a mere forty faces from such a rich field of possibilities proved to be an unenviable task, as “we could easily have selected 400, starting with the present day and going back through our entire history.”

Fouratt emphasizes that the selected images — a collection that includes Two River Theater Company founders Joan and Robert Rechnitz, playwrights and producers Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore, Holiday Express honcho Tim McLoone, singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins, and rock photographer Mark Weiss — in no way represent a “Top 40” ranking, but instead offer up “a taste of the depth and the diversity of the arts community here in Monmouth County.”

Many of the portraits (which, as per a sneak preview we were granted, include several surprising choices and possibly one genuine man of mystery) first appeared in the Two River Times — a co-sponsor (with Monmouth U) of the exhibit, and a paper to which Sanchez has contributed throughout the eras of publishers ranging from Claudia Ansorge to Geraldo Rivera to Diane Gooch.

Sanchez, who had established a professional relationship with such national publications as US Weekly and The Star by the early 1990s, credits TRT with having “opened me up to local things” — with the epiphany occurring during an assignment in which he was asked to take pictures of a gentleman who was nicknamed, for reasons that must remain obscure, “The Johnny Appleseed of Atlantic Highlands.”

“He met me out in front of his house, this old man, wearing a suit and with his hair all fixed up,” recalls Sanchez. “I realized just how much it meant to him, having his picture taken.”

With a re-energized love for his craft and a respect for his locally based subjects, Sanchez applied a new attitude to his assignments — including the wedding of Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres, a celebrity-studded affair at which “I was the only one of the five photographers hired who shot all of the guests, instead of just Jon Bon Jovi, Donald Trump…everyone’s the same to me.”

While some of the featured faces of Forty Faces (including sculptor Jim Gary and photo archivist Dan Dorn) are no longer with us, many of the subjects — and the man who captured them for posterity — are expected to be present and accounted for at the opening reception, hosted from 6 to 8pm on June 10. There’s a suggested donation of $40 for the 40th anniversary fundraiser event, and the exhibit remains on display at the Pollak Gallery through July 31.