On a hot day in 1976, while David Bolger D’79 was attending the Dental School, he took a photo of a man sitting on a vent, shoeless, at 37th Street and Locust Walk. The man was somewhat of a fixture on campus, silent but constant. He didn’t ask for money, he didn’t engage anyone in conversation, nor did he seem aware of passersby. But he didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, says Bolger, most people who attended Penn in the 1970s will instantly recognize him as the Vent Man.
Carl Hoffman G’76 Gr’83 remembers. In a 2008 essay in our September|October issue, Hoffman describes him this way:
“The Vent Man was quiet and inner-directed. He was short, slight, and bald, with a fringe of reddish-brown hair around the back and sides of his head. He derived his name from his address … This steam vent was his perch and post from the crisp, nippy nights of late October to the first warm days of early April.”
Eventually, Bolger developed the film, making a print in a grad chemistry lab. He hung onto it through various moves, appreciating the Vent Man’s grit and doggedness with every glance at the photo. Forty-two years later, Bolger commissioned an artist to render it into a painting.
Bolger explains, “I approached Taha Heydari, an artist working out of a studio in Baltimore, about commissioning a painting based on my photograph. As his work usually focuses on other topics, he was initially reluctant to accept the job. After sending him the essay by Carl Hoffman, he was so touched by Hoffman’s description of his brief encounter with the Vent Man that he immediately consented to render the portrait. The sneakers figure prominently, and the shadow behind the Vent Man is meant to represent both the photographer taking the picture and the artist at work.
“The feeling I get when I look at these images is best described at the conclusion of Hoffman’s essay: ‘You simply have to take the cards life deals you and play them as best you can—if not to win, then simply to stay in the game.’”