Americans assemble: Meet the artist capturing the superhero in all of us

Seattle photographer Nate Gowdy celebrates the many hues of red, white and blue.

Seattle photographer Nate Gowdy and collaborator Christie Skoorsmith guide speech pathologist Gay Lloyd Pinder, 73, during a photo shoot for ‘The American Superhero’ project at Inscape Arts in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. (Photo © Jonathan I. Shields)

In a rampart of a building at the southwest edge of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, people from all walks of life have been dressing up as American superheroes. Some choose their red, white and blue costumes from a large cardboard box. Others bring their own props to the building, which served as an immigration center for 72 years — a way station where newcomers were detained, deported or granted citizenship.

The superheroes are a diverse league: teachers, politicians, immigrants, veterans and students donning tights, shiny gloves and star-spangled plastic shields to strike a pose for Seattle photographer Nate Gowdy. 

“It’s about being American,” Gowdy says of The American Superhero, the ongoing, collaborative patriotic portrait project for which he is photographing people of all ages, genders, races, creeds and abilities. “It’s about embracing our differences, which always ends up highlighting our commonalities.”

Gowdy photographs the subjects in his studio — one of 125 artist spaces that now occupy the decommissioned immigration building under its new name and mission, Inscape. In the building’s early days, Gowdy’s studio was the Assay Office, where fortune seekers from the Klondike Gold Rush brought their treasure to have its worth assessed. But for Gowdy, gold comes in the form of the personal histories he hears from the people he photographs in superhero costumes.

“The photos are a hook; they’re bright and shiny,” he says, sitting in his studio, where a Captain America helium balloon is slowly sinking from the ceiling. “But it’s really about the stories beneath.” 

He asks the subjects: “What is your superpower?” “What is your vulnerability?” “What does it mean to you to be an American?” They each share their individual American story — the survivor of Cambodian genocide, the college student whose Mexican mother was deported in September, the ALS patient helping Microsoft develop eye-triggered technology, the Filipina activist and drag queen who became an American citizen in the very same building as the photo shoot. Turns out the American story is one with countless chapters, twists and turns. 

Originally from Indiana, Gowdy came to Seattle 10 years ago. A hobbyist photographer, he was given his first “real” camera in 2011, and landed a gig shooting photos for Seattle Gay News. On his first assignment he took a traditional photojournalistic approach — attempting to be a fly on the wall. But when he brought the photos back to his editor, he says, “We agreed they were really bad.” Then his editor gave him the best advice he says he’s ever received: “Engage people.” On his next shoot (a rave for the “bear” community), instead of trying to be invisible he started asking, “Can I get your picture?” The subjects obliged gleefully and the photos captured the energy of that specific night. “It’s so much better when you let people take control,” Gowdy says. “That’s when they let me in.”

He became the official Seattle Pride photographer in 2011 (and still is), and shot many political fundraisers and events during the campaign to legalize gay marriage. Driven by his interest in politics, Gowdy decided to follow the 2016 presidential campaign trail. He traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire, shooting photos and sleeping in his car. He landed a shot of Bernie Sanders on the cover of Time magazine. He also attended the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where he first encountered the inspiration for The American Superhero project: Vishavjit Singh.

“Captain America with a beard and a turban,” Gowdy says of his first impression. “I hadn’t seen that before — it made an impact.” Singh, who was born in Washington, D.C., and later survived the 1984 Sikh massacre in Delhi, India, adopted the character and costume of Sikh Captain America in 2013, after a white supremacist massacred six Sikhs in a Wisconsin house of worship. His aim was to encourage tolerance and confront stereotypes in a playful way that couldn’t be achieved in street clothes. Gowdy thought Singh’s concept was brilliant in its simplicity. The two met briefly but amid the chaos of the GOP convention, Gowdy didn’t think much more about it. 

That is until back in Seattle, in the spring of 2018, Gowdy learned Singh would be in town to launch the Wing Luke Museum exhibit of his illustrations: Wham! Bam! Pow! Cartoons, Turbans and Confronting Hate. He asked Singh to come by his studio so he could take his photo, in costume, against a yellow backdrop. That was going to be that — the portrait of the bearded, turbaned Sikh Captain America would live among Gowdy’s other political shots, including Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Mike Pence and Bernie Sanders, as well as their supporters and protesters.

Gowdy works with family to review pictures
Photographer Nate Gowdy reviews images from a photo shoot with the Vasilez family at his studio in the Chinatown-International District. The American Superhero project's creative producer Gregory L. Evans pictured at left. (Photo © Jonathan I. Shields)

But then something happened that Gowdy says was “literally life changing.” In October of last year, he attended a talk Singh was giving at Town Hall Seattle. During the Q&A, the woman just ahead of Gowdy in line said to Singh, “You mentioned that anyone can be Captain America. Have you ever thought about having a photo shoot where people from all walks of life are dressed up like Captain America?” Singh said it was a good idea. Gowdy thought it was a really good idea, and started talking excitedly with the woman — Christie Skoorsmith, a local mother of twin transgender boys — about how to accomplish it. The three planted the seed for the project that night.

On March 23 of this year, it fruited. That’s the day 40 people, responding to a call on social media, showed up at Gowdy’s studio in various states of superhero gear to be photographed for the project. During the shoot, Gowdy and his team of volunteers also captured the individual stories beneath the costumes, which he and Singh have been editing down for The American Superhero website. 

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Having maxed out his credit cards to buy superhero costumes and props, Gowdy says he did have a fleeting moment when he wondered, “What am I doing with my life?” But the importance of the project is propelling him forward. “My camera has gotten me into some pretty cool rooms,” he says. “But I’ve never been prouder than of this series of photos.”

The first shoot went so well Gowdy coordinated a second one, and continues to do more targeted sessions. He had no trouble convincing U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Seattle to dress for the occasion, and earlier this week he photographed Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston (who wore a pearl necklace and earrings along with her shiny red gloves). Gowdy currently has his sights on fellow Hoosier Pete Buttigieg.

“My dream is getting ‘the Squad,’ ” he says, referring to Democratic U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. “That would be incredible.” But just as he gets excited, he emphasizes the intentional democracy of the project. “For every public figure, we want to include 10 to 20 people whose names you don’t know.” He’s also determined to include people on the other side of the political spectrum. (Asked if any of his superhero subjects are Republicans, he says he doesn’t ask that question but thinks there are likely a few.)

Gowdy has published about 20 photos so far, with several dozen more in the pipeline. He’ll debut 35 of the portraits at the University of Washington’s Tower Mezzanine Lounge in an exhibit opening Thursday. And he’s not stopping there. “This is just the beginning,” he says. Gowdy hopes to “find” a budget (“I’ve never had a budget!” he laughs) and take the show on the road to eight cities across the country — including in more conservative areas — during the 2020 election. Maybe someday he’ll turn The American Superhero into a book. Though he says his premise is nothing new, he believes in it fiercely: “We can achieve change by listening to each other.”

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