Gary Stochl was walking down Milwaukee Avenue east of Halsted in January 2003 when he saw a funky storefront gallery that had an exhibit of street photography. He pushed through the rusted security grating and went inside.

For decades Stochl, who was 55, had been taking street pictures himself, though he’d never shown them to anyone. “I didn’t trust that people would react in a positive way,” he says. He walked around the space, Gallery Chicago, looking at the photos on the wall, which were by Mike Pocius. Then he approached Steve Leavitt, a painter who was hanging out there that day, and told him, “I’m a photographer too, and I’d like to have a show here.”

It was the first, hard step, but it gave Stochl the confidence to take the next one. Now his images are in the Art Institute, and in the spring Columbia College will publish a monograph and the Cultural Center will open an exhibit.

Stochl’s only formal training in photography was a class he took in high school. “The instructor left me on my own to do my own thing,” he says. So that’s what he did. And he kept doing it while he was in the army in the 60s and during the years that followed. He taught himself to see by looking at the books of classic street photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. He bought a 35-millimeter Leica in 1968 and shot in black and white, using only a 50-millimeter lens. He says using a telephoto or wide-angle lens would be “unnatural. That’s not the way we see things with our eyes.” He made prints in the darkroom he built in the house he shared with his parents in suburban Stickney.

After he got out of the army he never had a steady job. “If I had a regular job, to fit a strict nine-to-five pattern, I wouldn’t have had the time to do what I do,” he says. “The volume of work I have, just on weekends wouldn’t have been possible.” His parents–his father was a printer, his mother a housewife–supported him. He was their only child, and as they got old he took care of them full-time. “They were very ill,” he says. “My mother had Alzheimer’s.”

Stochl didn’t have a car–he still doesn’t–but he would take the bus or train into the city and then spend hours walking through the Loop or outlying neighborhoods taking pictures.

“I walk everywhere, from the north side to the south side and back again,” he says. “I’m in good shape, with a lot of energy. If I was in a car I couldn’t do my photography well. You have to walk from place to place to capture the moments I’m interested in.”

Those moments usually concern people. “Ninety-nine percent of the time they are so caught up in their own worries and cares that they don’t pay any attention to me,” he says. “To the extent that they do notice, they consider me a minor nuisance. I catch them unawares, and I bring a good deal of psychological insight to the process.” One particularly striking photo, taken in 1974, shows a shopkeeper or building manager with a frightened look locking a door, the light from signs across the way reflected in the glass. A 1979 photo of commuters hurrying to catch their trains at Madison and Wells manages to convey how rushed they feel.

Stochl has taken many photographs in which a natural barrier like a tree, a corner, or a window frame divides the image into two visual fields. “My visual strategy is geometric,” he says. In one such shot a white man in a suit and a black man in a funky cap are reflected in two corner windows, both of their faces downcast. “I don’t think I’ve ever taken a photograph of a person smiling,” he says. “That’s not my attitude. If you look at my photos you’ll see a strong current of pessimism.”

Stochl’s parents both died in 1998. They’d known he was taking pictures, but he was so unsure of his work he’d never shown them any of his prints. He says they left him an inheritance, but he realized he still needed to make a living. He thought he might be able to make money from his photos, but he had no idea how to go about it.

When Stochl asked Steve Leavitt about having his own show, Leavitt was struck by the way he talked about his work. “Gary had been doing this for 30 or 40 years,” he says. “It was a vocation to him, not just something of interest.” Leavitt told him that if he wanted a show he should bring in his work so that the other artists affiliated with the gallery could see it.

Gallery Chicago is a small, cluttered space in the front of what used to be a hardware store at 760 N. Milwaukee. The building is owned by Ken Hirte, who once ran a silk-screening business out of it, then a wire and cable business. Now in his early 60s, he’s gone back to silk-screening and runs the gallery on the side.

Hirte says the gallery got its start back in 1995. He and some friends were drinking in a nearby bar when a local muralist pulled up in a van with a sign on the side identifying her as a “fine artist.” He says, “I made the comment that all I wanted to be was a not-so-fine artist.” He and a dozen friends decided to call themselves the Not So Fine Artists Society, and they put up drywall in the front of Hirte’s building to create an exhibition space. It eventually morphed into Gallery Chicago and now exhibits the work of the friends, including Leavitt and Pocius.

“We are fringe artists,” says Hirte. “Most of us never went to art school and are disregarded. We don’t consider ourselves Ed Paschke, though we do get big heads from time to time.” He says he runs the place on a shoestring and takes only 10 percent of any sale. “If the gallery becomes a success, that’s terrific,” he says. “If it doesn’t, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

In the back of the gallery is a room with a bed, a messy desk lit by an enormous fluorescent fixture, a computer, and a high table with a white tablecloth. The gallery’s artists and friends often sit on stools around the table, and Hirte serves them pizza, coffee, and wine that he makes in plastic buckets in the basement.

Soon after Stochl talked to Leavitt he showed up in the back room with his photos. The people there were impressed. “Gary’s a photographer, but so are others,” says Leavitt. “You can see he is playing music at a much higher and more serious level.”

Stochl fit in, and he kept coming back, usually on Saturdays. “Ken has a unique gift for making people feel comfortable,” he says. “He makes no distinction among his guests. My feelings of discomfort and shyness evaporated when I was with him.”

Hirte says he saw in Stochl “somebody with an awful lot of talent, but he was so isolated. I talked to him like he was one of my children, trying to improve his self-esteem.”

That summer Hirte showed Stochl’s work to Sandro Miller, an internationally known photographer. “I fell in love with it,” says Miller. Stochl printed several images for him. “The photos were in all different sizes,” says Miller. “They weren’t fixed properly, the borders were fogged, and the paper was torn.” He gave Stochl $250 to buy new paper and chemicals, then bought 14 prints.

Hirte offered Stochl a one-man show in the fall of 2003. It opened on October 17. Stochl invited no friends or family. “All my family members are deceased,” he says, “and between the time my parents died and the moment I entered Gallery Chicago I had kept to myself. It’s not that I’m antisocial, but the deaths left me sad and depressed.”

A pair of reporters from a college radio station interviewed him. He’s not sure the interview ever aired. “There were long periods of tentativeness and an inability to articulate,” he says. The show was up for a month. An office manager at the Sun-Times bought three prints, and other people bought four more.

A gallery regular suggested that Stochl take his photos to the Stephen Daiter Gallery, and he went in January 2004. “I met with a man who seemed to run the gallery,” he says. The man said he liked Stochl’s photos but didn’t offer to represent him. “I was waiting for him to say something in that regard,” says Stochl, “but he said nothing. He just told me to keep doing what I was doing.” (Paul Berlanga, manager of the vintage collection at Daiter, was the person Stochl talked to, but Berlanga doesn’t remember him.)

Another Gallery Chicago regular suggested that Stochl take his photos to Columbia College. It took him months to work up the courage. “I wasn’t used to dealing with institutions,” he says. “I felt this powerful inner resistance.” In April, Hirte went with him to Columbia. They heard that a teacher would be looking at student portfolios a couple days later, and Stochl decided to go and hope she wouldn’t notice that he wasn’t enrolled. When he showed up he found out that she hadn’t come in because her mother was sick. While he was standing there trying to decide what to do, in walked Bob Thall, the chairman of the photography department.

“We get a lot of older students here, and I thought this guy was one of them, someone who needed to be placed out of Photo 1 or something,” recalls Thall. “He was carrying maybe 300 prints in a shopping bag. I thought, ‘I want to get this guy out of my office. This is the last thing I need right now.’ But as I looked through the prints I was shocked at what I saw. Here out of the blue was one of the great Chicago street photographers.”

Thall describes Stochl as a personal documentarian in the tradition of Diane Arbus and Stochl’s idol, Robert Frank. “In his stuff you see all these people struggling with the burdens of everyday life,” he says. “Then there’s the design elements–lots of innovative visual experimentation. He uses mirrors and windows and objects to create complicated structures within frames, and he pushes tonality like they did at IIT’s Institute of Design in the old days. This is no wacky counterculture neighborhood shooter, but a blue-chip Chicago artist.”

Thall called David Travis, the photography curator at the Art Institute, and a few days later Travis arrived at Columbia with two assistants to look at Stochl’s pictures, which Thall had asked him to leave behind. “We were just enthralled with the level of the street work,” says Travis. “We saw the quality, and what was so surprising was that Gary’s been on no one’s radar screen.” Travis arranged to have the museum acquire ten prints. Stochl says he was paid up to $1,500 apiece for them.

Thall also introduced Stochl to Shashi Caudill, an art consultant and curator who sells the work of vintage and contemporary photographers, and she agreed to represent him. LaSalle Bank is now considering buying six prints for its collection. The monograph Columbia College plans to publish will contain more than 50 photos, and the exhibition at the Cultural Center, which opens in February, will be up for two months.

Hirte says he’s glad to have helped Stochl get noticed. Stochl says he appreciates Hirte’s help. “Ken has been a good friend and a strong supporter,” he says. But he also says his work was always beyond the level of Gallery Chicago. “I don’t know why the Art Institute would deal in not-so-fine art. You have to be pretty good for them to want you, right? Gallery Chicago was the beginning for me, a stepping-stone, because of my inexperience dealing with the art world.”

Stochl says he’s handling all the attention pretty well. “I’ve had this need for self-protection, but lately I’ve begun to change my mind–I’ve become more proactive,” he says. “I don’t have great expectations. I’m hoping to build a constituency from whom I can earn a meager living. The more I interact with people and the more feedback I get, the more comfortable I’m becoming. I’m not a rock star or a big-shot movie actor from Hollywood. I’m a photographer. How frightening can that be?”

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