From KERA News:
As a photographer, Don Thomas II, known as Tortellini, looks at the often overlooked – like North Texans who are homeless. Or Oak Cliff’s hard-working residents. His photos now sell for thousands, but two years ago, Tortellini didn’t even have a camera. Didn’t know how to use one.
And the pandemic had just gotten him furloughed from Bell Helicopters.
“I had saved enough to where I didn’t need a job immediately,” Tortellini said. “And one day, I went to a camera store and I said, ‘I don’t want to get too invested in it.’ So he showed me a Canon AE1, I bought a roll of film, and went out and started photographing the city of Dallas.
And I was terrible.”
Tortellini persisted in learning. Fortunately, he had a lot of material to learn from. He lives downtown.
“Street photography was the first thing that I took because I was out in the streets everyday in Dallas,” he said. “And I found that there was so much beauty in the streets. That’s what naturally led me to Faces of Dallas, which was the homeless photography project.”
Most of Tortellini’s photos are portraits, and to capture the ones for the Faces of Dallasseries, he spent time with people who were homeless, listening to them, finding names and contexts for them. Printed on brushed aluminum, the black-and-white portraits recently on display at the DeGolyer are often striking, deeply human. A man with stage 3 cancer asks God for mercy. Another sports an Omega Psi Phi hat — from the famous Black fraternity.
Tortellini considers himself a documentarian, and on his website, the portraits are bracketed with stories about how he met his subjects, their backgrounds, data about their situation — all to “humanize the homeless.”
“Being out there on the streets and fellowshipping with the homeless people,” Tortellini said, “they just trusted me to tell their stories.”
For a different photo series, Tortellini left the Cedars, where he lives, for where he grew up: South Oak Cliff, or what he calls The Village. For these images, Tortellini went into businesses, schools, restaurants, people’s front porches — to counteract Oak Cliff’s public image as a site of “poverty, squalor and decay” and to capture what he calls “the pillars of the community.”
“We hear every day there’s a murder or something with drugs or something bad happening in Oak Cliff,” he said. “So I just wanted people to look at my work and see the beauty, the value in Oak Cliff. ”
Tortellini photographed teachers, musicians — and entrepreneurs like Hiawatha Williams, founder of the the beloved Williams Chicken franchise, which currently has 50 locations. Tortellini photographed members of the South Oak Cliff High School football team. Last year, the Golden Bears won their first-ever UIL state championship — the first in 60 years.
Then there’s John Wiley Price. Dallas County’s only Black commissioner would certainly fit such a series. But Tortellini photographed him getting his hair done by Maurine Jones, known as Tootsie — owner of Tootsie’s Braiding Gallery.
The hairdresser recalled her first meeting Price more than 20 years ago.
“And I just didn’t like how his hair was looking,” she said.
So she called the commissioner’s office twice, left messages there for him.
The calls weren’t returned.
“So I called them and told them it’s an emergency.”
Price has been a customer of Toostie’s Braiding Gallery ever since.
Tortellini created information cards for these photos — real-life context — and what he wrote up for this photo tells us who Price is, of course. But it also tell us about that other pillar of Oak Cliff: Tootsie Jones.
That’s because when it comes to African-American hair care in Dallas, Jones is, like, third-generation royalty.
More than a century ago, Madam C. J. Walker was one of America’s first self-made, female millionaires. She built a hair-care empire for Black women, eventually opening one of her beauty colleges in Dallas.
And in 1985, “Miss Velma Brooks bought the beauty school,” said Jones. “And she was the first accredited black beauty school owner in Dallas.”
Jones herself is a graduate of Velma B’s Beauty Academy and Salon. She said she loves the goal Tortellini has for his photos — to show people what’s often overlooked in Oak Cliff.
“But the main thing that I hate is the woman that taught me is deceased. Miss Velma Brooks didn’t get to see it.”
Brooks died in 2017 — and her beauty academy no longer exists.
Which is something else Tortellini wants his photos to do: to preserve, to push against the upheavals wrought by developers in Oak Cliff — and the changes caused by time.
“I was thinking about the preservation of culture in Oak Cliff,” he said, “and the pillars of the community that are being forgotten.”
Tortellini has already done what many photographers dream of: making a career with his art. He was the first Black photographer to have a solo show at the Dallas Arboretum. Some of his photos are priced at $1500. A giant print of the Golden Bears football players is going up in Redbird Mall.
And Tortellini’s already thinking of new series — one on breast-cancer survivors, another on fathers.
But what he’d really like to do is go back to school.
He sees all of these photos about what we don’t typically see — he sees them as narratives.
So what Tortellini wants to do is make films.