By Steve Novotney
It all started with a dog taking a leak in an alley.
It was Lane 9, in fact. The alley is a throughway located between a law firm and the First Presbyterian Church along Chapline Street, the Victoria Theatre, and the Professional Building on Market Street.
And as far as downtown canines are concerned, Porter Elliott claims t he same spot in the same alley on a daily basis.
“I was doing some marketing shots for Glenn Elliott at the Professional Building, and in the middle of it he decided his dog, Porter, had to use the facilities,” explained 28-year-old Bennett McKinley, whose father – Republican Rep. David McKinley – represents the Mountain State’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“As we were walking into the alley, something just shouted out to me. The light. The contrast of Glenn wearing a nice, grey suit and the grunginess of the alley. It just shouted, ‘Take a picture here.’ So I did.”
And then the image was tested on social media.
“That photo got rave, rave reviews on Facebook, and someone suggested that I run with it – that I turn it into a series,” the Linsly School graduate said. “At first, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to do it, so at first I hesitated.”
Obviously, he reconsidered, and so far almost 350 people have participated in his “Meet Me in the Alley” art project since then, including his mother and father, Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron, Mayor Andy McKenzie, council members Gene Fahey and Don Atkinson, and the Convention and Visitor Bureau’s Frank O’Brien. The project has attracted coal miners, military veterans, mothers, fathers, police officers, teachers, financial consultants, firefighters, and many more
“At first I started with some family members and some close friends, and then it grew to other friends and acquaintances. And then people I had never met before who had heard about it started showing up. It’s been pretty neat.
“I’m going to continue through the winter unless we have one of those crazy blizzards,” McKinley said. “There’s no reason for me to stop.”
The Defeated Return.
McKinley graduated from Mount de Chantal and Linsly (Class of 2004), and then enrolled at West Virginia University. After couple of semesters, he transferred to West Liberty University. He met his wife, Katy, in Morgantown while attending WVU in 2006, and they were married in 2009.
His focus in college, though, was not photography. He was an intern-innkeeper of the university’s bed and breakfast, Liberty Oaks. He liked the hospitality business, and he chased a career within the industry after graduating.
“It was fantastic at West Liberty and I really loved doing it, and I still like the hospitality industry. You see the best and worst in people in that industry,” McKinley explained. “My wife Katy and I were living in Traverse City, Mich., right next to Lake Michigan, and a pretty good job opportunity was available in New Jersey. So we got out of our lease in Michigan and quit our respective jobs. We started to pack up, and then that job fell through.
“So we moved home to Wheeling because I had family to support me here. The shame of it is when we came to Wheeling, we were sort of defeated. I wish now we would have moved home intentionally.”
The couple’s intent, though, was not to live in the Friendly City for long. After arriving, he and his beloved began their search for their next step.
“We were looking at various places, but we just kept staying. And then we asked ourselves, ‘Why would we retreat? Why would we run away when we can stand here and fight and make this place the place we imagine it can be? Why wouldn’t we help make this the place where we want to go to?’
“Now? This where we plan to stay forever and raise our son, and establish each of our businesses,” McKinley said. “We’re here to stay and fight.”
The couple’s son, Louis, turned four years old on August 19. Most of the time, he goes where Mom and Dad go.
“He’s a fantastic little guy who changes my world every day,” he said. “Every year my wife and I have said that, ‘This is our favorite stage in his life because he’s forever growing. It’s just amazing. You hear so much about it from other parents, but you can’t understand it until you’re one of the parents.
“I think he’s probably had the most alley pictures than any other person because – almost every time he’s been here with me – he’s had me take another of him in the alley. I think we’re up to a dozen-and-a-half of ‘Meet Louie in the Alley’. And that’s perfectly OK with me.”
The ‘Alley Guy’
McKinley is now known in the Upper Ohio Valley more as the “Alley Guy” than the “Congressman’s Kid.” He feels the peering eyes and swears he hears some of the whispers about his “Meet Me in the Alley” project, but he knows it’s a temporary moniker.
“I have had people come up to me while I’ve been working events, and they’ve said, ‘Oh, you’re the “Alley Guy’. And that’s wonderful because it’s great exposure for the sake of the project. But nonetheless, it’s confining to be the ‘Alley Guy.’
“Beyond that, you will never hear me complain because it’s been wonderful. It’s been a lot of exposure. I’ve been able to meet a lot of new people, and I’m able to be part of a cool project,” he explained. “I think one reason why I’m OK being the ‘Alley Guy’ for the time being is because there will be a point when interest has dropped to zero either by the participants or by me. I want it to hit 1,000. I want it to be something really unique and special.”
His father’s success – as an architect and a member of the U.S. Congress – provides no “shoes to fill” for the young photographer.
“We live our own lives, that’s all.
“Being my father’s son has never been an issue with me because I’ve been doing my own thing,” he said. “It’s not like I go around town and announce that’s who I am. I am who I am. I’m on my own. I love my father to death, but I try not to ride on any coattails. I do not use my name for anything.
“When I go somewhere, I introduce myself as ‘Bennett’ and not as, ‘Bennett McKinley.’ I’m not embarrassed by any means, but I know people correlate either negatively or positively. Simply, he’s not me.”
McKinley staged a “Meet Me in the Alley” Gallery Opening on the third floor of Wheeling’s Artisan Center on July 31. In preparation, he printed and hung more than 300 “Meet Me in the Alley” portraits he had snapped during a three-month period and arranged for beverages and appetizers for those who ventured into the downtown district for the show.
Although several of the portraits had won acclaim while on display in the dining room of the Vagabond Kitchen in the McLure Hotel the previous month, he owned no idea what to expect. His nerves subsided quickly.
“When you get to see 312 people in one gallery – ranging from a 2 ½-year-old to an 86-year-old woman … black, white, female, male – it doesn’t matter,” he said. “For everyone to be there in one gallery – well, that was a powerful experience for me. It was great to have so many people united over something so simple.
“It’s been really neat to see an entire community get involved in a simple, little art project. Just showing up for five minutes in alley,” he said. “It was incredibly humbling, too. To see the crowd that was there, and to hear the response from each person who talked with me, was a very humbling experience for me. Everyone was so positive and so thankful for the chance to participate, and that was really overwhelming.”