Growing a beard does not have to be an activity reserved solely for COVID-19 lockdown times.
In fact, a South Whidbey photographer is setting out to capture as many unique beards as possible for an upcoming book showcasing facial hair of the island’s residents.
Freeland resident Michael Holtby is looking for more men to be part of his Whidbey Beard Project. Participants receive a free portrait sitting and a digital or hard copy print of the resulting photograph.
“There’s a joke about if you’re on Whidbey Island, within 100 feet is somebody with a beard,” Holtby said. “It’s true, there are lots of people with beards.”
As of Sunday, 22 men have volunteered to participate in the project, but Holtby is looking for as many as 50.
“If I run out of subjects, all I have to do is go to the grocery store,” he quipped.
Current portraits can be viewed on the website, whidbeyphoto.com/whidbey-beards. Willing participants can contact Holtby by emailing WhidbeyPhoto@hotmail.com or texting 303-396-3818.
“I’m looking for unique beards. They don’t have to be long, but it has to be somewhat different than mine,” said Holtby, gesturing to his short, trimmed beard.
When he was 19 years old, Holtby grew an “Abe Lincoln” beard in an attempt to look older. His facial hair resembled the former president’s because he could not grow a mustache initially. Since then, he’s shaved it all off only twice, and in both cases immediately grew it back.
“The last time I shaved was about 20 years ago and was unrecognizable to my friends whom I regularly met for breakfast,” he said. “They walked right by me.”
During the 2020 pandemic lockdown, he didn’t shave or trim and let things go a little wild. He’s since reined in his facial hair back to its current state, which is relatively short.
Holtby has been taking photographs for over half a century. He’s traveled the world capturing wildlife and indigenous cultures of Asia and Africa. He’s hoping his current project in portrait photography will help him hone his skills to do more in the future.
Through the Whidbey Beard Project, he’s gotten to meet some interesting subjects who have stories to tell. After a while, the conversation isn’t all about beards anymore.
“Before I retired I was a psychotherapist, and I think that helps,” Holtby said.
He encourages them to bring a partner or friend, which helps them be more relaxed or animated in the photos.
Participants are also instructed to bring a variety of outfits representing their personality. At least one of them opted to dress in a pirate costume. Others chose colorfully printed button-downs.
Jasper Hein, the current reigning Mr. South Whidbey, stopped by Holtby’s studio last week for a session. A sports fan, he brought a bright blue vintage Seahawks jacket that was gifted to him by a friend. In one of his photos that made the final cut for the project, he wore a splashy cocktail print representative of his role at a restaurant in downtown Langley.
“I’m a beard enthusiast. I talk about facial hair more than most humans should, probably,” said Hein, who also happens to be a shirttail relative of Holtby’s.