Photographer Jed Fielding calls his encounters with the people he shoots “short collaborations.” Considering the way he works, the intimate pictures he comes up with, and the fact that his subjects are strangers he approaches in the street, they could hardly be anything else. Fielding’s wide-angle lens, usually positioned less than a foot from his subjects, focuses on a face, a torso, the top of a head, or some other fragment. The pictures are skewed and striking.

Fielding has been taking his strange street portraits for 15 years, mostly in foreign countries like Mexico, Greece, Egypt, Morocco, or Italy–one of his favorites. “I always seem to go back to Italy,” says Fielding, who’s been there four times, for a total of about 15 months. “It was easier for me to make pictures there than anywhere else,” he says. “The people were so willing to be photographed.”

Fielding’s work, along with photographs by Mario Giacomelli, Doug Prince, and Kenneth C. Burkhart, is part of “Ciao Italia!,” an exhibit of photos from Italy–portraits, street scenes, landscapes–on display now at Catherine Edelman Gallery.

Fielding isn’t a traveler who happens to have a camera: “I travel to work,” he says. In 1975 he made his first trip abroad as a professional photographer. He had originally planned to go to Mexico, where he had been before as a tourist, but a photographer friend who was going to Peru–and a cheap flight–persuaded him to go there instead. He came back after two weeks (“I shot all the film I had with me”), and six months later he left for Italy.

He developed his close-up, wide-angle method on those first two trips. “Maybe it was because I was in a new country for the first time,” he says. “I had this need to interact with the people I was photographing. Not because I want to get to know the people–I like that, but it has nothing to do with the way the pictures look. The fact that I’m so physically close makes my pictures look the way they do. I really don’t want to make the kind of picture that is taken from far away.”

Fielding studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 1975. He spent three more years in Rhode Island, teaching photography to grade-school students through a program sponsored by Polaroid and the National Endowment for the Arts, and then came to Chicago to study at the Art Institute, where he earned his MFA.

But though he’s lived here for almost 12 years, Fielding doesn’t do much work in Chicago. One reason is time: “When I’m here I’m always in the darkroom or trying to make a living,” he says. Abroad, where he doesn’t have distractions–like the phone, or bills to pay–he works seven or eight hours a day, every day.

More important, though, he has a hard time taking the kind of pictures he likes in Chicago. “Maxwell Street has been photographed to death,” he says, “and I’m not interested in people in suits and ties, so why should I go down to Michigan Avenue?” Foreign cities, he says, with their marketplaces and streets full of people, offer more possibilities.

He has found one place here that provides good material: beaches. Fielding’s collection of Chicago beach photographs, exhibited in May 1989 at the Evanston Art Center, were all taken between 1978 and 1982. “I’ve never photographed in Chicago since,” he says; he’s been too busy traveling.

Fielding has stories both good and bad about his experiences with people he’s photographed, but he doesn’t like to tell them. “To talk about those people doesn’t seem fair,” he says. “I like the photographs to speak for themselves.”

“Ciao Italia!” runs through March 3 at 300 W. Superior. Hours are 10 to 5:30 Tuesday through Saturday; call 266-2350 for more information.