Ask an artist to describe the creative process and you’ll likely get a blank, if not downright hostile, stare. Press the point and you might get a dull recitation of technical details or a tortuous explanation of what the work is supposed to make you think or feel–the kind of thing that’s often dubbed an artist’s statement. But sometimes, if you ask the question right, you can catch a glimpse of what was really in an artist’s head.

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of her contemporary photography gallery, Chicago art dealer Catherine Edelman chose one iconic image by each of 34 artists whose work she’s exhibited then asked, “What were you thinking?” Not surprisingly, most of the photographers balked. “They were hesitant to put into words what they felt was an intuitive process,” she says. “But I believe we don’t work without conscious thought. It’s not always one plus one equals two–it’s not that literal. But as artists, most think about what they’re doing and seek to fulfill that thought. It is this thought that I asked each artist to share.” Those thoughts and the photographs make up the exhibit that opens this Friday at the gallery (there’s also a catalog).

Sally Mann, long a target of conservatives who find her bluntly intimate nude photos of her children a threat to American decency, took the opportunity to defend herself and praise her kids, now grown. The image Edelman chose was Mann’s 1989 portrait of her daughter, Holding Virginia, in which the dirty, windblown girl stares defiantly from the frame, her arms grasped by two even dirtier adult hands. Mann writes, “Viewers often mistook that fierceness to be resentment. Time and again we’d shake our heads in rue at how misunderstood that expression was–it wasn’t resentment at being photographed. Rather, it was [my daughters’] spirit, their fire, and they didn’t bank it at the sight of the camera.” She explains that her husband was a blacksmith, hence the dirt and sooty hands. “The combination was unsettling to many people–a child, dirty from head to toe, with an expression of independence and confidence–it just didn’t make American sense.”

An artist with a decidedly different sensibility, Tom Baril, describes stumbling across the blossoms depicted in his stark, elegant 1997 photograph 3 Poppies #2 at a New York City flower market. It was near the end of the day, and still they sat, passed over “at least 100 times” by the florists and wedding planners who patronize the stalls. “I found myself immediately attracted to the contorted, uncontrollable stems and knew right away what the resulting photograph would look like,” he writes. “When those same people who dismissed my poppies at the market see my photographs in an art gallery or reproduced in a book, they are often amazed by what my flowers reveal….If I am successful, the photograph reveals the underbelly, the overlooked, and the underappreciated.”

“What Were You Thinking?” will be at the Catherine Edelman Gallery, 300 W. Superior, through January 4; hours are 10 to 5:30 Tuesday through Saturday. A reception will be held for the opening, Friday, November 15, from 5 to 7 PM. For more information call 312-266-2350.