The Inside Man

“I was never interested in photography as something I could make a living at,” says photographer Scott Fortino, whose urban images are on display in “12 x 12: New Artists/New Work,” opening as part of First Friday festivities tonight at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s not that Fortino didn’t need money–the southwest-side native is no trust-fund kid. But he discovered his calling as an artist at virtually the same moment he was accepted into the Chicago Police Academy, 26 years ago. Fortino used one of his first police department paychecks to buy a Deardorff four-by-five view camera, and he’s been a cop with a photography habit ever since. Like writer Martin Preib (a subject of this column last year), he found in the CPD both a day job and a source of inspiration.

Fortino says it was in a couple of classes at Columbia College, where he wound up in his mid-20s, that his affinity for photography clicked. But his feel for the medium goes back earlier than that, to his teenage years, when his brother was fighting in Vietnam. Instead of writing letters, John Fortino sent home images he took with two 35-millimeter cameras he’d purchased at the PX. “He would send two or three packs of slides every other week,” Fortino says. “That became part of my high school ritual. I looked forward to going downstairs, turning on the slide projector, putting on some music, and looking at those pictures, trying to figure out–with much mixed emotion because of what was going on in the culture–my place in relation to those pictures, and my brother’s place. Trying to figure out what the heck was going on in those pictures, because he didn’t include letters that explained them.”

The images were not what you would expect, Fortino says. “Nothing horrific. Just mundane aspects of these guys’ experiences–American soldiers, dirty, exhausted at times, and then sometimes looking like they were having the best time of their life. There was army equipment and foliage, tropical landscapes and rifles, caravans of army vehicles. It looked like it could be dangerous, but it was mundane, diaristic. Nothing spectacular. No explosions, no helicopters landing. Nothing like what we have in the public record, nothing cinematic.” John came home safely and became an electrician. “He took over my wardrobe,” Fortino says, “and in return he let me use the cameras.”

Fortino graduated from Columbia in 1980 with a liberal arts degree, just after he’d started attending the academy. His photography career remained on the back burner, and by ’92 he was back at Columbia, teaching photography part-time and thinking about grad school. In ’98 he enrolled in the master’s program at UIC–with trepidation, he says, about “going back to school in my late 40s with 25-year-old artists.” But UIC gave him a course to teach, sharpened his focus, and opened a bunch of doors. After the first year, faculty member Peter Hales suggested a portfolio review at the Art Institute. “I dropped off a box of my pictures at nine o’clock on a Tuesday, and when I picked them up at five o’clock there was a letter inviting me to participate in an ongoing commission for the Park Hyatt Hotel,” Fortino says. The hotel wound up purchasing 21 images, in editions of 3 to 15. He was also chosen for the CITY 2000 show, where he attracted the attention of Shashi Caudill, now his dealer.

Bob Thall, who’d hired Fortino to teach at Columbia (and whose work Fortino had known since his undergraduate days), called when he heard Fortino had returned to school. He took him out to work a few times, and Fortino says he dropped this suggestion: “My publisher, George Thompson, will be in town next week. If there’s a box of pictures on my coffee table he’ll be able to see your work.” Five years and a number of donors later, Fortino’s first book, Institutional, was issued in a printing of 2,200. Published by the Center for American Places in association with Columbia College, with a foreword by UIC dean Judith Russi Kirshner, Institutional is a relentlessly formal 54-image meditation on the vacant interiors of public buildings–the scuffed floors, scarred doors, and gleaming tiles and bricks of jails, courts, and schools. Chalk dust roils a blackboard, light breaks around a pair of window shades, and a hallway glows luminous orange.

Fortino’s prints now sell for $1,500 and up, and he expects to retire his police uniform in two years, but he says a portion of the profits from the book will be donated to the Chicago Police Memorial Fund. Fortino says space is more interesting than people, but the human presence–the evidence of use and abuse–is there, in every image. You might want to find a comfortable chair, turn on some music, and try to figure it out.

Ever Thought About Bingo?

The MCA’s been hosting First Friday mixers since the museum moved into its Chicago Avenue fortress in 1996, but in the last year extracurricular activity at the museum has taken an uptick. Amy Corle, director of internal marketing and a 17-year MCA veteran, is responsible for a series of Tuesday-night events that’s had folks heading there for readings, gourmet dinners, speed dating, and stitch ‘n’ bitch. Corle says she was looking for a way to get people into the cafe after the end of the summer jazz series and was inspired by an employee’s knitting club that was clacking away in the conference room at lunchtime on Fridays. Like the First Friday events, these free programs are attempts to draw new patrons into the building, and Corle says they’ve been attracting about 70 people each week, with a nice crossover from the knitting group to the museum’s yoga class. But it might take more than that to bolster the MCA’s attendance: last year it dropped to just under 212,000–a couple thousand less than the previous year, down 30,000 from 2002 and 2003, a third less than the 312,000 logged in 2000, according to figures provided by the Chicago Office of Tourism. MCA marketing director Angelique Williams says the drop since 2004 is due to a change in the way the museum has to report attendance figures since joining Museums in the Parks. Maybe it’ll get a goose from the Warhol “Supernova” exhibit, opening March 18, which drew about 50,000 viewers in Minneapolis, where it originated. Or maybe Warhol’s had his 15 minutes.


The Silent Film Society was booted from the Gateway Theatre a year ago, but expects to inaugurate a new home base this spring at the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee. Film Society head and former Gateway manager Dennis Wolkowicz is one of three members of a management team that has taken a long-term lease (with option to buy) on the 85-year-old Portage. Wolkowicz says they spiffed it up, returned it to a single auditorium format, and are just awaiting (what else?) the PPA license. It’ll have 1,350 seats and will offer live music and talkies–classic, revival, independent, documentary, and foreign movies–along with the silent films. . . . Second City Theatricals producer Beth Kligerman says The Pajama Men, opening this weekend at the Steppenwolf Garage, represents a couple of firsts for Second City: it’s the first time they’ve imported a show, and the first time they’ve collaborated with Steppenwolf.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea, Shashi Caudill Photography & Fine Art.