On Living Legends of Alexandria

At the bottom of each of Nina Tisara's column is Founder of Living Legends of Alexandria (LLA). Read about the founding of Living Legends.

Founder Nina Tisara with assorted LLA portraits, The Lyceum, 2008. (All photos: Steven Halperson/Tisara Photography)

Alexandria, VA – At the bottom of each of my Zebra columns are the words Nina Tisara, Founder of Living Legends of Alexandria (LLA). I am proud of founding Living Legends.

The idea came to me when in fall 2006, I was approached by the City and the Gazette Packet for photos of people who had died. Over the years, we at Tisara Photography—Steven Halperson, Lynn Halperson Mills, and I—took many portraits, and if we had taken them, we could retrieve them. We had an extensive indexing system that I learned when I worked for the official Air Force Photo Library.

Then it was as if a lightbulb went off in my head, just like in cartoons. There is already volumes of material about Alexandria’s colonial history. The documentation of its current history was important to me (and still is). I thought, why not photograph people who were doing important things while they were still alive?

With early support from the Gazette Packet and the Rotary Club of Alexandria, Living Legends of Alexandria was born. LLA was conceived as an art/history project and continues today as a private, nonprofit corporation. For the first two years, the portraits were exhibited and the Legends were honored at The Lyceum, Alexandria’s History Museum.

For many years LLA was awarded funding from the Alexandria Commission for the Arts. Jurors accepted portraits of the Legends in Young At Art exhibitions and for Del Ray Artisan monthly shows. Subsets of the collection, primarily African American Legends and Women Legends, were exhibited at the Alexandria Black History Museum, City Hall, St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub, Prudential PenFed Realty, and Northern Virginia Community College.

Nina Tisara greets Korean visitors, The Lyceum, 2008.

People sometimes question the word “Legends.” One definition of a legend is an unauthenticated story, a folk tale, not necessarily true. The LLA stories are as true as we can write them. The reason for the word choice in LLA was primarily alliteration.

Then-LLA President Jennifer Ayers wrote in the 2019 annual catalog, “Living Legends of Alexandria believes…that we should celebrate and honor those who have made those improvements to the quality of life in Alexandria. By selecting individuals who are exemplary in their service and leadership, we can document for the historical record their lives from their own perspectives and thereby inspire others….”

The official LLA portraits have retained their original square format, are black and white, and where possible, are composed so that the background tells something of the Legend’s story.

People sometimes ask why the photographs are black and white. To me, black and white photography connotes history. It brings to mind Matthew Brady’s images of the Civil War and Lewis Hines’s study of child labor. We are bombarded with mostly color images. According to Wikipedia, we see 11,000 images per day. I wanted LLA’s images to stand out.

The reason for the square format is, again, to set them apart from the thousands of images we see daily. I used a 2-1/4 square format camera rather than a 35mm rectangular format, and I composed to fit the frame of the film. Yes, it was film back then.

2009-10 Legends Pat Troy and David Speck, The Lyceum, 2010.

In 2015, Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria, was a guest at an LLA board meeting. Mallamo outlined a proposal for LLA to deed framed Living Legend prints to the City of Alexandria. The collection would be appropriately stored and insured.

Lance noted that OHA is responsible for over 3 million items that are kept in a humidity-controlled environment. The prints would be available with proper notice if Living Legends wished to display them and could be used for a future book with any proceeds set aside for LLA activities. I was very pleased that a motion to deed the collection to OHA passed unanimously.

Then-Mayor Bill Euille and 2007 Living Legend Ferdinand Day, The Lyceum, 2008.

I retired from Living Legends when I turned 75, in part because I wanted to know it would endure without me and because I wanted to focus on creating mosaic art. I have no vote in the future of the official portraits. Still, I hope that the portrait collection will remain in the care and protection of the Office of Historic Alexandria.

Thanks to the dedication and hard work of its board, Living Legends endures. Due to Covid 19 restrictions, there was no nomination and selection process in 2020, but nominations for the 2022 Living Legends of Alexandria are now open. Information about how to nominate a Legend will be available at AlexandriaLegends.org.

Nina Tisara is Founder of Living Legends of Alexandria.

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