A Pirate Turns 50

Sundays in 8th grade were pretty boring. Especially in winter. Our favorite indoor spots were closed, and it was too snowy and cold to do much outside except maybe walk around and smoke.

One Sunday in January Mike had an idea. His dad worked at an ad agency; They’d been given a bunch of outdoor swag by a client, including an inflatable raft. The plan was to get a ride out to Bemis woods in the morning, blow up the raft, and spend a lazy winter’s day floating down Salt Creek.

Montrose #1, Chicago, 2016. Silverprint from 4×5 negative

Even in the dead of winter, Salt Creek didn’t freeze. Maybe that’s because it wasn’t water. We thought of it more as a sewage cocktail, mixed with runoff and a dash of effluent, oozing down to the Chicago Sanitary Canal. We’d been warned not to fall in, or risk being infected with 22+ diseases.

Salt Creek wound it’s way through the Cook County Forest Preserve, a network of protected wooded zones spread out across Chicagoland. Originally designed as an urban oasis, by the 1980s it had become a no-man’s-land and reputed playground for mobsters and serial killers looking for a quiet place to dump a body.

Montrose #2, Chicago, 2016. Silverprint from 4×5 negative

We were in for a surprise. Apparently a 2-person river raft requires a lot of air, and we didn’t have a pump. Instead we unrolled it on the snow and took turns blowing into it until we were dizzy. Eventually the head rush was so bad that we decided to stop. We figured it was inflated enough to float us home.

Which it did, sort of. Lying on our backs, we drifted under highways and along hidden tracts of land for about an hour, until the boat got stuck on the shallow bottom. At that point we had to step into the creek with gym shoes and push. Without hats or gloves, and nothing to keep us warm except Irish coffee and cigarettes, we got cold.

Montrose #3, Chicago, 2016. Silverprint from 4×5 negative

The situation devolved. In our minds, we were lost at sea, stranded in a raft without means for rescue. The boat deflated and sank. We climbed out in the middle of the woods and our feet were numb. Abandoning ship, we hobbled back to Mike’s parent’s house, which was surprisingly close. I ran up to their bathroom and thawed my frozen feet in the tub, watching my toes shift from bright white to blazing red.

I borrowed some dry clothes from Mike and walked home. Sundays weren’t boring any more.

B+W Art Car

In 1998 I was featured on the 10 PM news for driving an art car taxi downtown St. Paul. I didn’t own a TV, so the reporter sent me a VHS tape to watch later. Just found it!

Mr. Imagination

1991. Clark & Belmont, Chicago.

The first thing I did after finishing college in Madison was hop on a plane for Ireland. My flight left from O’Hare, so I arrived in Chicago a few days early and crashed with former dorm mates at their North Side flat.

We went out to a bar across the street, a subterranean place directly under the elevated tracks that rumbled every time a train passed over. I met an artist who had been shot by a mugger a few years earlier, emerged from a coma, and changed his name to MR. IMAGINATION. He wore a suit covered with flattened bottle caps that had been folded over and sewn into his clothing like fish scales.

Mr. Imagination, Chicago, 1991. Silverprint from 35mm negative

Mr. IMAGINATION invited us up to his apartment, along narrow paths through rooms jammed with Egyptian sculptures. He lived in a wedge-shaped building with slow moving El trains out the windows on both sides that were so close I could read the headlines on the commuters’ newspapers jerking past.

I returned the next day with a camera and shot his portrait. I didn’t know it at the time, but six months later I’d be back in Chicago, and good friends with MR. IMAGINATION. I made him a print and he hung it up. Later, when the Terra Museum organized a retrospective of his work, they discovered the portrait and displayed it in the museum. It was my first gallery show.

Step Four

One of the things I love about shooting film is the number of steps involved. It’s such a drawn-out process that I usually forget what I was thinking when I originally made the photos, leaving me with fresh eyes when I finally see the shots — sometimes years later.

  1. Load film holders with 35mm bulk rolls or large format sheets
  2. Shoot on ‘M’ with a hand-held light meter and manual focus
  3. Download and develop the film in the darkroom
  4. Cut and sleeve the film on a light table
  5. Print contact sheets… end of the line for most shots
  6. Print/ scan a final select

Gap Year

2017 was a gap year of sorts for me. Maybe it was for you too?

After the presidential election of 2016, I needed to live less on the computer, and spend more time with my family. That’s when I remembered the moldy box of old film cameras that I’d found at a garage sale for $40. Digging through there, I pulled out a Leica and a Hasselblad, dusted them off, and spent much of 2017 burning through a year’s supply of film.

After a few long weekends of processing film by hand in the darkroom, I’m excited to get started. Stay tuned to see what 2017 looks like on film.

First Selfie

1986: LaGrange, Illinois. My first selfie, shot in my room for a self-portrait assignment, due the next day. I had already broken my dad’s camera. This one was a loaner from my high school photography teacher, Nan Garside. I didn’t have a tripod, so I set the camera on the edge of my desk, which added some blur around the bottom of the frame.

Self-portrait, 1986. Silverprint from 35mm negative

I was about to graduate from high school. A couple weeks earlier I had seen the mountains and ocean for the first time, on a road trip to Daytona Beach for spring break with the guys from my lunch table. I’d lived in the same house for 18 years, and it wouldn’t be long till I left for college in Madison, and moved away forever. This was the end… but also the beginning.