As a boy growing up in Bloomington, Illinois, photographer Richard F. Wilson used to enjoy cruising up and down the Illinois River with his parents. In the summer of 1957, when he was 17, his mother was stricken with terminal cancer. Hoping to divert her from her suffering, Wilson’s father bought a larger boat, in New York–a 70-foot yacht that was to take the family up the Hudson River and along the Erie Canal in style. To pass the time while it was being refitted, the Wilsons booked passage to England on the Queen Elizabeth, one of the Cunard Line’s gigantic superliners, then sailed back to New York on the even larger Queen Mary to find their own craft ready and waiting.

While setting off on a day trip up the Hudson one morning, the Wilsons came upon the Queen Mary as she was leaving port. “When you’re on a magnificent boat like that you photograph the shit out of everything,” says Wilson, “but you never get a picture of the boat itself.” Wilson’s father handed him a camera. “I looked at him and said, ‘Dad, there’s only five pictures left.’ He said, ‘Shoot wisely.'” Wilson snapped four pictures as the ocean liner approached, then a fifth once it passed. He says a strange sensation overcame him during the final exposure. “It was one of those instances where . . . there’s a body and mind separation and something just happens, and when it does, it’s spectacular. My mother said, ‘That’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw and you got the picture’–it was that much of a eureka moment.” It was the start of a lifelong love affair with the camera for Wilson, now a Pilsen fixture and one of six contributors to a new exhibition called “Strange City,” which Wilson describes as “six very different artists giving their different takes on city life.”

Wilson picked up the technical rudiments of photography from his father and his high school art teacher. In 1960 he left Bloomington to return to New York, hoping to make his living with a camera. At first he worked a day job in a Greenwich Village furniture store and prowled for pictures at night. After a couple of months he made his first sale, to the New York Post. “One night I just went out with a camera and ended up at four in the morning at the office of the Post, writing out a caption on a little manual typewriter. I have no idea what the photo was. I just can’t remember. But after that I was part of the press corps. I sold to anybody that bought: papers, magazines, whatever.”

In the 70s Wilson started working Manhattan’s clubland, photographing “celebrities, freaks, rock stars, and beautiful people” at nightspots like Studio 54, Danceteria, and Hurrah, and rock clubs like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. “When the punk scene broke I was really in my element. I was there right from the start, shooting the Ramones, the Dictators, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Debbie Harry. I keep a sacred relic from CBGB, which was a horrible place, an absolute toilet. The toilets themselves were just that much worse. Anyway, in the stalls they used to have the toilet paper hanging on a loop of pink clothesline. One night a friend of mine stole a length of the clothesline and I’ve got it framed.”

It was while working the club beat that Wilson acquired his professional handle, Richy Flash. “I was at this club called Lone Star to shoot Gary U.S. Bonds, if you remember him: he was a pretty popular singer in the 60s and Clarence Clemons was helping him make a comeback in the mid-70s. Most people take concert photos with a long lens but I always used a short one so I’m right up in their faces. Bonds knew me because I’d been shooting him in the dressing room, and when I started shooting he said, ‘Hey, Richy Flash-Flash’ and made a gesture like, ‘Do you mind? I’m working here.’ So the name stuck, but when I started using it professionally some copy editor at the Post thought it was too much and shortened it to Richy Flash.”

For the past nine years Wilson has lived and worked in a dusty loft in a building south of Cermak on Halsted, the walls of which are lined with his photographs–portraits of friends, Illinois landscapes, a series of male nudes, and some abstract works. One shot shows the 78-foot coastal cruiser that was Wilson’s home for much of the 70s. “I had this sugar daddy whose name I absolutely cannot reveal–I’ll call him SD–and he made the boat possible.” Wilson shared the boat with his son, who was born in ’68 (“the outcome of an overdose of Colt 45,” Wilson explains). Next to the picture of the boat is one of a uniformed sailor standing on a pier, a ripe strawberry in his hand. “We got off the boat because SD saw this sailor standing with a strawberry. He was leaning over the flybridge shouting, ‘Oh my God, take the boat in, take the boat in.’ I took the picture of the boat as it was pulling away, then turned right around and snapped the picture of the sailor. SD wanted that sailor, I was just recording it.”

In ’92 Wilson turned the boat over to his son and headed west, first to Las Vegas, then San Diego, where he briefly worked in the porn industry. “They said I was too artsy-fartsy,” he says, “which was sad, because the money was really good. But I hated it out there.”

In ’95 Wilson moved to his current digs in Pilsen. Since then he’s been living off his savings, doing some framing work on the side, and regularly exhibiting his photographs with the Pilsen Photo Group, a loose neighborhood cooperative of Pilsen art veterans. At the end of this month his rent is set to jump from $700 to $1,200, so he’s moving to a cheaper place in Champaign. He expects to continue to show his work in Chicago, though less frequently than in the past.

Wilson’s contributions to the Pilsen Photo Group’s “Strange City” show include work from his New York days and current work shot around Pilsen. One picture is of a Chicago man holding a banner that reads Join LaRouche Don’t Be Slave. “He came up to my car at Ashland and Cermak,” Wilson says. “I was absolutely repulsed, I wanted to smack him. But instead I just shot him.”

“Strange City” opens Friday, August 13, and runs through Tuesday, August 31, at Pilsen Photo Group Space, 1839 S. Halsted, Fridays, 6 to 11 PM, Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 6 PM, or by appointment weekdays; call 312-666-1731. The participating photographers are Wilson, Obleo Beck, Ned Broderick, Renae Lillie, and Jeff Mickey.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.