James Klekowski was a Columbia College film student when he signed on in 1981 with the Southeast Chicago Historical Project and began documenting the lives of people in four south-side neighborhoods. “It was a new experience for steelworkers and families down here to give oral histories–to pass down stories not just to the family but to the community,” says the Cottage Grove Heights native, whose grandparents landed in South Chicago after emigrating from Poland in the early 1900s. “People weren’t tuned in to the idea that their history is worthy.”

After the project wrapped, Klekowski decided to stick around. He opened a photo studio in South Chicago and in 1989 started the Street Sights Arts Program, which got local kids into making outdoor murals. He continued to shoot black-and-white pictures of daily life, documenting fires, strikes, mill closings, and building demolitions, as well as his family, neighbors, and new friends at weddings, funerals, ball games, and in the kitchen. The photos–many of which have an intimate, fly-on-the-wall quality–appear in his new self-published book, South Chicago U.S.A. The book also includes shots of gang members throwing signs, brandishing their weapons, and fighting with each other. “I think they thought I was a cop, which I didn’t mind because of the protection,” says Klekowski, who told them he was taking pictures for a book and now counts many of them as friends. “I brought the proof sheets back to show them how they looked. They had to be a part of it.”

The mural project ended in the late 90s, but Klekowski kept taking pictures. He also specializes in nature shots and erotic photos of men–the latter are featured in his other book, Three Stories. Since 1996 he’s been the location manager for the TV show ER–and has taken plenty of behind-the-scenes photos, which may also wind up in a book one day. The job allows him to hire friends from the neighborhood, where he still has his studio, though he’s had to relocate more than once as buildings have been torn down. “This area is easily overlooked for so many reasons,” he says. “Without the mills it’s still seeking its identity. But the people and their institutions are still here.”

He’ll discuss South Chicago U.S.A. and show slides Sunday, February 9, at 2 at the Polish Museum of America, 984 N. Milwaukee. It’s free; for more call 773-384-3352 or visit www.pgsa.org. He’ll also show and sell photographs on the third floor of the Flat Iron Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee, during this weekend’s Around the Coyote Winter Arts Festival, which runs Friday through Sunday. Call 773-342-6777 or see www.aroundthecoyote.org; for more on Klekowski go to www.ellisavenue.com.