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Joel Lipton: With a little help from his lens

by Jonah Lowenfeld

January 3, 2013 | 11:16 am

<i><small>Photo by Dan Kacvinski</small></i>

Photo by Dan Kacvinski

When Joel Lipton, who has been a professional photographer for almost 30 years, first started shooting events for Big Sunday, at the time a one-day, annual volunteer event, he initially had some second thoughts about just how much the clicks of his camera were helping. 

“You know, people are planting, and they’re doing heavy labor,” Lipton said of the other volunteers who were creating gardens and painting murals to permanently spruce up public-school campuses, often in low-income neighborhoods, among other jobs.

“I’m just taking pictures.”

But Lipton, who in his work life has photographed actors and poker players, hulking cheeseburgers and sculpted athletes, found that at the Big Sunday events he was taking pictures of ordinary people, often mothers and their children, bringing to each shot the same artist’s eye of all of his work, but done here for free, a gesture of generosity. So over the past five or six years, he’s created hundreds of these posed portraits, producing beautiful prints, which he gives out to his subjects on the spot. 

David Levinson, founder and executive director of Big Sunday, loves Lipton’s work, as much for the photographer’s working method as for how the final products turn out. He recalled how Lipton, on Halloween 2011, shot pictures of kids in their new costumes at a Big Sunday-organized party for underserved children. 

“He brought a seamless background, professional lighting, and took everyone’s pictures with patience and humor and attention to detail and respect,” Levinson wrote in an e-mail, “as if he were taking a photo of a senator.”

Pictures and videos produced by Lipton have found their way into Big Sunday promotional materials, even onto the walls of the organization’s offices. 

And though professionally he more often works in the premeditated style of photography used in advertising and editorial images, Lipton said when he volunteers as a photojournalist for Big Sunday, an annual Christmas dinner for Temple Israel of Hollywood and a few other lucky organizations, he feels like he’s validating the work others are doing by showing it to the world.

“A lot of things that people do are little things,” Lipton said. “I think that a lot of times, what people do, they don’t think it matters. But it does, because every little bit builds on something else.” 

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