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After years of professional photography, Mike Dabbraccio went through his work and presented 50 of his portraits in New Haven. (Photo by Nathan Hughart/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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In his career, Michael Dabbraccio has worked as a professional photographer for the New Haven Register, St. Raphael’s Hospital, and at private events. Now, in his retirement, he’s beginning to show the work he’s created for himself.
“I’ve always got my little camera with me,” Mike says. “After I stopped working, I started the thought that I’m going to get something together. I’d been photographing for so long, I had all these photos that were lying around.”
Mike recently completed his first exhibition, The Faces of New Haven, at Gateway Community college in New Haven. It featured black and white portraiture taken by Mike since the 1970s in the New Haven area.
“There’s a lot of characters in there,” Mike says.
Mike says he doesn’t know most of the people in his photographs. He’d simply meet someone while walking around, have a conversation, and end up taking their picture. Some are candid shots, others are posed, but most were taken on the streets where Mike met the subjects.
“I’ve always liked people and the thing was, these people that I photographed, I saw something in them that I could relate to in some way,” Mike says.
One of his favorite portraits in the show is of a man called “JD” who, Mike says, “looked like the biggest gangster in the world.”
“He’s got the overcoat, the sunglasses, the hat, but he’s really just a mild, unique guy with a nickname ‘JD’ like John Dillinger,” Mike says.
He attributes his ability to get such a wide range of portraits to growing up in Fair Haven.
“I can go anywhere, talk to anybody, because I grew up on the street,” he says. “As long as you don’t go bad, you can relate and talk to anybody.”
One of the more difficult parts of putting the show together, Mike says, was going through his old negatives and getting them printed properly.
“I figured out a way to scan [my negatives] with great success. It took me a while to get it down. It’s kind of complex,” Mike says. “I started putting things together.”
Though The Faces of New Haven was Mike’s first major show, he hopes to put out another one in the future.
“It was a lot of work but kind of gratifying to let people see what you’re doing,” Mike says.
His career in photography started in the Air Force when he joined in 1967, knowing he was likely to get drafted.
“I wanted to send a photo home to my mother,” Mike says. “So I bought a little Kodak and started taking shots of the guys and me and sent them home. It sparked my interest.”
From basic training in Texas, Mike was stationed in Germany, where he upgraded to a better camera and began to get serious about photography.
“I started hanging out in the photo club down there, talked to base photographers,” he says.
When Mike returned home, he married his wife Kathleen and moved to East Haven to take classes in photography and start his career.
“You never know everything, just keep trying to get better. You don’t have to brag about yourself,” Mike says.
Mike worked in the photo labs at the New Haven Register for 14 years before he became frustrated with the company. That’s when he heard about an open photographer position at St. Raphael’s.
“Three months later, I had the job. I was there for 21 years,” Mike says.
Mike says he working for the hospital. He contributed to the Better Health Magazine published by the hospital and documented surgeries and doctors. Mike was in part responsible for anything the hospital created.
“They’re putting out publications all the time. They’ve got internal publications for the employees, they’ve got the magazine,” Mike says.
He retired from that position in 2013 when Yale bought out the hospital and turned his attention to more creative work.
Though much of his work has dealt with portraits, he says he thinks his next show would feature color and his more abstract work.
“I like photographing at night,” Mike says. “I’ve been photographing a tree for a while under different lighting conditions, in snow, in different situations.”
This sort of work has taught Mike about the creative process as well and the challenges that go with it.
“You do something different, you wonder if it’s any good because you’ve never seen something like that before,” he says. “You want approval but at some point you realize, you don’t care. It’s what I like.”
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