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He's photographed the overlooked in Oak Cliff and Dallas. Now his photos sell for thousands

Library at DeGoyler Mansion at the Arboretum featuring photos by Tortellini
Jerome Weeks
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KERA
Tortellini's photos of the Dallas commissioner John Wiley Price (front) and South Oak Cliff High School's champion football players (back) on display recently in the DeGolyer Mansion library at the Dallas Arboretum

In only three years, Don Tortellini has taught himself photography and become the first Black photographer to have his work displayed at the Dallas Arboretum.

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.

Don Thomas II, known as Tortellini, on the entrance steps to the DeGolyer House at the Dallas Arboretum
Jerome Weeks
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KERA
Photographer Don Tortellini on the steps to the DeGolyer House at the Dallas Arboretum

"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 Dallas series, 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."

Photographer Don Tortellini's portrait of a homeless Dallas man with an Omega Psi Phi hat
Don Tortellini
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"Self-Reflection": Photographer Don Tortellini's portrait of a homeless Dallas man wearing an Omega Psi Phi hat

"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.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price have his hair braided by Maurine "Tootsie" Jones at Tootsie's Braiding Gallery
Don Tortellini
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Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price have his hair braided by Maurine "Tootsie" Jones at Tootsie's Braiding Gallery

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.

Don Thomas II, known as Tortellini, discussing his photographs displayed at the DeGoyler Mansion in the Dallas Arboretum
Jerome Weeks
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KERA
Don Tortellini discussing his photographs displayed at the DeGoyler Mansion in the Dallas Arboretum

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.

Preservationist Patricia Cox of the 10th Street District on her porch
Don Tortellini
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The "Matriarch of 10th Street": Patricia Cox, preservationist of the 10th Street District in Oak Cliff

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.

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at jweeks@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

Art&Seek is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.