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“The Collectors” Series

After my first few photography classes and trying my hand at a variety of photographic genres, I took a class in large format photography and the view camera.   Even though the age of film photography is for all practical purposes dead, most people over the age of 30 are probably somewhat familiar with 35mm cameras.  But view cameras use negatives that are 4×5 inches or larger…so, the negative is roughly 15 times larger than a 35mm negative.  They’re the kind of cameras you see in old black and white movies with the photographer’s head under a black cloth.  For some reason, I took a liking to this medium, perhaps because none of my classmates were particularly into it, or maybe it was because of the unique ability of the medium to capture detail with a clarity way beyond 35mm.

Throughout most of my time as an undergrad, I worked in a store called “Rosie Cheeks Vintage Clothing” which was  a legendary local hang out for all sorts of fascinating people:  artists, gays musicians, dandies and other assorted self-styled hipsters and misfits of the era.  I was looking for direction with my photography work and it occurred to me to do portraits of some of our more colorful customers.  I believed the 4×5 format, with its ability to capture detail, would be the perfect medium for this kind of work.

Shooting what I loosely called “The Collectors” series, was really the beginning of my taking myself seriously as a photographer.  I wasn’t just “taking” pictures, I was making them.  And my teachers also started to take me seriously as a photographer.  I worked on this series through the time I graduated with my BFA in photography in 1987.  On the strength of the work, I applied for the Mary C. McClellan Scholarship in Art and was awarded the top award for the year, beating out all other applicants from any artistic medium at my school.  With the money, I undertook the my next project in my post-graduate life, the “Route 40-From St. Louis to Terre Haute” series.  But I’ll show and tell more about that in my next post.

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Early Experimental Portraits and the Beginnings of my Commercial Work

Academics came easy to me in high school, and without much study I always made the honor roll.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I secretly longed to be a film director.  I started taking cinema studies courses at my school, the University of Illinois/Urbana, but quickly learned what a dismal program they had, and it mostly involved writing, film theory, and criticism, which really weren’t my cup of tea.   I did take an actual class or two in cinematography, but, I wasn’t as talented as I thought I was, and was bereft of ideas and funds.  I earned my first “D” grade in a class, and experienced what I considered to be my first academic failure.  I floundered.

I can’t remember if it was during my freshman or sophomore year that I enrolled in my first photography class, and I’m not even sure how seriously I took it.  It wasn’t until my third class in photography that I felt myself pulling ahead, becoming more and more interested in the work and taking it far more seriously than the other students.  I set up makeshift studios and had access to lighting equipment provided by the university.  My teachers and professors were heavily into post-modernism and feminism.  I was drawn to works by Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Joel-Peter Witkin, Diane Arbus and Arthur Tress.  These were people with something to say, and the vision to match.  My only problem was I didn’t feel passionately about much.

I know I liked theatricality and set-up shots.  I liked shooting people because it appealed to the film director in me.  What you see above are some of my experiments in portraiture along with some of my first commercial work, which was shooting a fraternity calendar.

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Feeling My Way In The Dark

I grew up in Oak Lawn, Illinois which, in second half of the 70s and early 80s was a cultural desert.  If there was any culture to be had, I wasn’t aware of it.  My parents were good parents, but family, work, and making a home were their main pursuits.  My mother had a few LPs, Errol Garner, Johnny Cash, Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, and some Christmas records.  There couldn’t have been more than 20 total.  We had 1 TV which was shared between my parents and my 4 older brothers.  Suffice to say, my viewing options were limited and I was bottom of the totem pole when it came to selecting what to watch.  We didn’t go to the movies, let alone theater, concerts or art museums.

Once I reached junior high, things started to change for me.  I started to take music lessons. A friend’s parents took me with them to see Abel Gance’s silent film masterpiece Napoleon at the Chicago Theater with a live orchestra.  I saw my older brother perform in his high school’s version of Fiddler on the Roof.  Once I got a taste of the arts, I couldn’t get enough.    Eventually, I became the entertainment editor on my high school newspaper, and was regularly winning local music performance competitions.  I was an honors student and my parents expected me to go to college to become an engineer or scientist.  With no one to really understand or nurture my interest in the arts, and limited means to pursue it on my own, my aesthetic education was slow.

I think it’s kind of funny that I ended up as a photographer.  I don’t think anyone who knew me in my high school days would have ever predicted it.  I went off to the University of Illinois enrolled in Liberal Arts, secretly wanting to become a film director, but afraid to tell my parents lest they say, “You’re going to be a dentist, and that’s FINAL!”  I thought perhaps I could sort of ease them into it.  How was I to know that I should have found a way to attend the University of Southern California if I wanted to go into film?  I was a plumber’s son from Oak Lawn, Illinois for god’s sake and all the smart kids went to the U of I.

I took my first photography class pretty much by accident.  Once I was out of the house, I was exposed to all kinds of new and interesting people, and was encouraged by my teachers and the creative environment.  I did have a lot of catching up to do in terms of my aesthetic education. Here are a few samples from my earliest attempts at photography, mostly from Photo I and Photo II classes.  These images span approximately from 1983-1985.

As part of an ongoing project, I’m reviewing some of my photography work from my first photography class to the present.  Here is my first post.