End of the Alley: Bennett McKinley winding down iconic 16-month portrait project

Bennett McKinley poses in the alley he's made famous with his Meet Me in the Alley series. Photo by Lee Chottiner; all other photos pictured here are by McKinley.

Bennett McKinley poses in the alley he's made famous with his Meet Me in the Alley series. Photo by Lee Chottiner; all other photos pictured here are by McKinley.

By Lee Chottiner

The coolest way to be part of Wheeling’s pop culture (yes, there really is one) is to stand in a dark alley and let Bennett McKinley shoot you.

Artistically, of course.

McKinley, 29, is the camera bug behind the Meet Me in the Alley photo series. He photographs all comers in the film noire-esque alley between Market and Chapline streets, creating the ultimate who’s who gallery for the Friendly City.

To date, he’s photographed 650-plus subjects — men, women and children; dogs and horses; actors in costume, police and firemen in uniform, musicians with their instruments, athletes with their gear.

A silvery elephant once stopped by for a photo session before taking up its permanent residence in the city’s new pocket park on Main Street.

Political leaders have taken advantage of the photo op. Babies have sat there alone in their car seats while McKinley trains his lens on them; a weight lifter has hoisted her barbells, and one little girl made herself cozy as she read a book. 

As McKinley has said, all are welcome. They make their own rules as to what they wear, how they pose and the props they bring.

Together, they have shown that even a small rustbelt city can boast a dynamic population.

“This is going to sound cliché or silly, but every person is kind of neat,” said McKinley, an eighth-generation Wheeling resident. “There are days in which one little family comes out and I sit there and talk to them for a little bit, and 15 or 20 minutes fly by, and there we are talking about downtown Wheeling, talking arts in Wheeling, talking about just what’s going on that’s making the city kind of vibrant and alive again. That’s fun.”

But if you want to be part of the series, you had better hurry.

McKinley has just announced that the Meet Me in the Alley series is coming to end. After 16 months of alley artistry, his last day of shooting in that space will be Sept. 30. Until then, he’s typically at the Market Street end of the alley on Sundays at 1 p.m. and Tuesdays at 6 p.m.

“You have to understand just how giddy I am to see where it [the project] has come,” McKinley said of the experience, “to start it with no expectations, and now to be — I don’t know — almost recognized for this. To hear people say, ‘oh, you’re the Alley Guy,’ that’s a wild thing.

“[But] this is why the project is ending,” he continued. “I can’t be the Alley Guy forever. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into just one certain thing.”

Meet Me in the Alley really began by accident. McKinley was doing some shots in the alley in March 2014 with Glenn Elliott, whose Professional Building comprises one of the towering walls framing the lane.

Glenn Elliott was the first subject of the Meet Me in the Alley series.

Glenn Elliott was the first subject of the Meet Me in the Alley series.

I was taking photos for him for marketing purposes, just head shots,” McKinley said. “Then, after a couple weeks of some people suggesting I do something with it, I took the real first photo of the series on the 22nd of March, of my wife. When people were saying that I should turn it into a series, I didn’t have any sort of expectation that it would go this far. I thought it would be pictures of my wife, my family and five close friends. But it certainly didn’t go that way because there are 650 people on it.”

Typically, McKinley stations himself at the alley certain times during the week, using his Facebook page to advertise when he will be there. Sometimes, business is slow, with just a handful of subjects showing up.

Other times, he's inundated.

“There was one day last summer when there were 65 people who showed up,” he said. “Where you get the three people talking with you about the city, then when you have 65 people, that’s a whole different ballgame. To see 65 people on Market Street lined up, thus talking about Wheeling — doing what the small groups do, just on a larger scale — that was impressive.”

Many alley models have posted their photos to their Facebook profiles. Some have even used them on dating websites such as eHarmony.

Each photo session lasts about three minutes. Usually, McKinley prefers to shoot his subjects individually, catching their unique essence with the alley as an edgy, urban backdrop.

But he does make exceptions, like the time he shot the entire Wheeling Jesuit University rugby team, which just happened to be next door in the Professional Building doing some interior demolition work for Elliott. They posed with their sledgehammers and masks.

If you ask McKinley which is his favorite shot, he won’t take long to answer: Beth Patsch, a friend and member of the Wheeling Young Preservationists.

“There was just something striking about it,” he said. “Actually, that’s my mom’s favorite as well. There’s just something striking, very powerful about it. To put it into words what it is precisely, I don’t know if I could, but that’s probably been my favorite.”

This portrait of Beth Patsch is McKInley's favorite of the series.

This portrait of Beth Patsch is McKInley's favorite of the series.

The series has already had one exhibition in August at the Artisan Center. At the time, the project had over 300 photos and it covered the entire space.

Now that it’s coming to an end, McKinley would like to arrange a second exhibition for the completed series. But there are hurdles to clear, like finding a space in Wheeling large enough to accommodate it.

“We wallpapered the walls [of the Artisan Center],” he said, “so if it’s more than doubled, I’m not certain where to hold an exhibit that size.”

He also wants to produce a book form the project, but he faces the same problem.

“I would love to do a book. The issue is that it’s going to be very expensive. If I were to end it today, that’s 650 photos, and I take a black and white photo and I take a color [for each subject], so that’s suddenly 1,300 photos. That’s a lot of pages in a book.”

The complete project can be viewed at 500px.com.

Even though Meet Me in the Alley is ending, the idea lives on.

“I’ve seen other photographers shooting in the alley now,” McKinley said. “They all take family photos. Then other people I’ve seen have taken their own photos; they’ll just take a cell phone down there and take a picture of a friend, which I’m trying to take in stride.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

The Wheeling Jesuit rugby team barely fit into the narrow alley. 

The Wheeling Jesuit rugby team barely fit into the narrow alley.