The photographer Weegee slept in his car with his ear inches away from his police radio in the 1940s in New York. If Bill Stamets had a car, he’d sleep in it, too. Stamets, 34, is a photographer and more famously a Super-8 filmmaker who is everywhere in Chicago documenting the moment.
For years, those who knew his work were limited to a small but enthusiastic group of photographers, reporters, and artists. Now he will be releasing a 90-minute videotape with MPI, a home video distributor in Oak Forest, the firm that marketed the Bears’ Super Bowl Shuffle, and Stamets may become famous and his nose will go up in the air and he’ll get an apartment and a telephone.
The tape will be a collection of political footage from the Daley years to the present. It will be alternative as is all his work. He recently showed excerpts from the tape for some fans in the living room of an apartment he is staying in. The audience was packed with members of the Camera Club, which includes some of Chicago’s best photographers, and Chicago Sun-Times reporters Lynn Sweet and Don Terry and a political reporter with two earrings in his ear and a man from Yugoslavia who had written a book on Donald Duck who brought a translator.
Stamets was furiously editing when the guests arrived. He had a phone number written on the back of his hand which he said was his accountant’s.
The lights went out. Stamets’s wonderful quirky images went on the screen. There was Jane Byrne in a supermarket standing under a box of Kleenex saying, “This is where I get my turkeys,” and Chicago Sun-Times political columnist Basil Talbott following her into a bus and Don Haider reading a storybook out loud to children and holding up the pictures and Tom Hynes vigorously working the line in a tortilla factory and later trying to eat one.
The images screened that evening were connected without chronological logic or ideological focus, a way of editing that heightens the lunacy. At one point, a man is talking at length about a campaign issue and Stamets’s camera circles the ceiling. There is a shot of a small lonely stereo speaker on the wall singing, “My kind of town, Chicago is — yeah — my kind of town. . . ” Channel Seven reporter Andy Shaw asks Mayor Washington if he has a Christmas wish for his opponents. He says, “Yeah, drop dead.”
Political campaigns are full of lumpy, awkward moments with people bumping into each other in empty fluorescent-lit halls and missing their mouths with pizza slices and clapping at the wrong time. Television news, most often for the sake of maintaining dignity and projecting that the world is well-ordered, edits out much of the real life. I don’t recall seeing shots on television of the back end of budget genius Don Haider trying to climb on top of an elephant or of young girls screaming to touch Tom Hynes as if he were the fifth Beatle. But Stamets gets them all.
“I hold onto things longer than they do on TV news,” he said, explaining his vision. “You see 80 seconds of Harold instead of 20. That extra time might just be enough to give you a view of who they are.” Stamets’s point of view varies. “Sometimes I’m shooting from the floor underneath the other cameras.” He showed some outtakes — political consultant Marilyn Katz waving her finger and saying somebody owed her five bottles of Dom Perignon, and Windy City Times columnist Jon-Henri Damski standing in front of the statue of Alexander Hamilton saying that Hamilton was “born out of wedlock in the West Indies” and that Richard Daley was “monosexual” and “was really not a city father but a city mother. . . . The first thing when you went in his office, he’d want you to wipe your feet.”
Those who know Stamets agree he “is everywhere.” He is at every political event. He owns a pair of eyeglasses, books, and cameras. He is so much in the present that I never knew he had a past until the other evening when a member of the audience mentioned that his brother is among the foremost mushroom experts in the world. We were aghast. I remember once he said his mother sent him a fudge cake that he served at a screening to accompany the Hershey’s kisses and M&Ms. He said he grew up in a small town in Ohio, 40 miles west of where Night of the Living Dead was filmed. He appeared one year in the City Hall pressroom with a master’s degree from the Committee on the Conceptual Foundations of Science at the University of Chicago and a BA in neurobiology from Cornell University and knew an inordinate amount about Chicago’s political history.
He has taught part-time at DePaul University and had an awful time last year teaching film at the University of Colorado in Boulder because there was no urban life. He sent back letters and news clippings that included a story about a South Korean film director and his actress wife who were kidnapped by North Koreans for their film expertise and another about a woman who shot a man through her bedroom window because he had pursued her for five years and she had a poodle who was hard of hearing.
Stamets is on the masthead as a city editor of the New Art Examiner magazine which he says is a voluntary position. He follows the politics of the art world and called once and said, “You probably didn’t hear but there was a stabbing at the film screening last night above the Pago Pago. I guess the guy didn’t like the films.”
Stamets’s films are often shown at Chicago Filmmakers, where he has played an active role over the years. He showed a list of his film titles, which included nonpolitical subjects and some mysterious ones — Our Bamboo Gingerbread House, Dear Jodie, Love John, and Welcome to Earth. The last must be autobiographical.
Stamets’s Chicago Politics: A Theater of Power, distributed by MPI Home Video, will be on sale beginning May 20. It will be available at Waldenbooks (206 N. Michigan and other locations), B. Dalton ( 129 N. Wabash), and video stores around the city. For more information call 687-7881.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.