“Nice work, but you’re not ready,” Bob McCamant declared, after flipping through the portfolio of 16-by-20-inch black-and-white prints I had spent many darkroom hours creating. We sat in his office at Reader headquarters on Illinois Street, in 1986, the year I graduated from Columbia College. McCamant was one of the group of four who’d founded the Reader in 1971, and its first photo editor.
I was an avid fan of the paper, always eager to get the latest issue, grabbing the chunky-thick, four-section slab from the tall stacks available every Thursday afternoon at bookstores, el stations, restaurants, and newsstands throughout the city. I devoured the paper, usually while riding the el, starting with the Straight Dope column at the front of the first section, then moving on to the calendar, the feature articles, the movie and music listings, and finally to the classifieds section for my favorite cartoonists: Lynda Barry, Heather McAdams, Bill Griffith, and Matt Groening. (I wonder what ever happened to Groening, the Life in Hell cartoonist?)
One thing you couldn’t help noticing in the Reader back then: the striking, artful, black-and-white photography, which looked nothing like the photos you’d see in the Tribune or Sun-Times or almost anywhere else; the Village Voice is the only other periodical I can think of that compared. Photography was revered at the Reader; photos were copious, printed large on the page, always credited, and never cropped (the main reason for including black edges around photos back then was for photographers to prove that the image was not cropped in the slightest).
I had a few friends who worked at the weekly as production artists, one of whom—Albert Richardson—liked my work and would occasionally run photos of mine on the calendar page he laid out every week, when he had extra space to fill. It was a thrill for me to see my work published there, but having a staff member sneak my images in through the back door did not earn me approval from McCamant to shoot assignments. He thought I needed a bit more time, and in retrospect I’m (pretty) sure he was right.
In 1988, two years later, I scheduled another portfolio review with McCamant, and this time got the green light; he said he’d give me a try. For my first two years, my assignments were limited to 1,000 Words—a photo feature I loved shooting for. The idea was simple: the assigned photographer had the weekend to shoot almost anything within the city limits. The challenge was coming up with something special—a truly compelling shot that lived up to the titular theme; a photo that told a short story, not just a sentence or two. In other words, a great street picture. The pressure to come up with a worthy image was daunting, but it was a pleasure to roam around the city, walking through unfamiliar neighborhoods, hoping that the gods of serendipity would smile upon me.
In the 2000s, photography at the Reader transitioned from analog to digital, but in the 80s and 90s, this was the process for photographers at the paper:
1. Wait for a phone call. In the 80s—pre-cell phone era—this meant you better have a pager, because if you didn’t get the message from your answering machine until a few hours later, you’d likely lose the assignment. More often than not the editors had to secure a photographer quickly, so if you didn’t pick up the phone or call back right away, they’d call another photographer.
2. Buy a couple rolls of film if you don’t already have them in the fridge.
3. Drive to the location, usually where the subject lives or works or has an exhibit, etc. Might be Rogers Park, Hyde Park, Navy Pier, west side. Could be a bowling alley, an el platform, a restaurant, a cemetery.
4. Shoot the assignment; the fun part.
5. Drive home and develop the film. Up until the mid-2000s or so, we developed and printed our own assignments. For most of us, that meant working in makeshift home darkrooms. I would develop the film in the kitchen sink of my apartment, hang the film to dry, cut it into six-frame strips, make a contact/proof sheet. Circle the best three or four images with a white grease pencil, with an eye to offering the editor several variations, including both vertical and horizontal orientations, giving them flexibility with page layout. Make eight-by-ten prints. Wash and dry the prints.
6. Grab the barely-dry prints and drive to 11 E. Illinois. It’s probably after hours by now, so you can slide the prints under the door, or call someone and have them come down for the prints. And right by that door was the Thai restaurant Star of Siam . . . always smelled heavenly after hours of scrambling to meet my deadline.
In my 25 years shooting for the Reader, I photographed an incredibly wide variety of interesting people (and to be honest, there may have been one or two less-than-interesting subjects as well), including two priests and a rabbi (individually), a Moorish Science Grand Sheik (at Temple No. 9 in Ukrainian Village), at least five aldermen, a drag king, smokejumpers (tree-climbing firefighters/invasive insect examiners), burlesque dancers, an Iraqi torture victim, an international air-guitar champion, a White Sox organist, a Hairy Who artist, the inventor of Paint by Numbers, a taxi driver, a hacktivist (later sentenced to prison), a professional Neil Diamond impersonator, and a porn performer who called himself “Sex Pig.”
Other folks I had the pleasure of photographing: Eric Idle, Ted Levine (Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb in Silence of the Lambs), Mavis Staples, Wilco, Ira Glass (and Torey Malatia), playwrights Edward Albee and Tony Kushner (individually), Steve Albini, Cynthia Plaster Caster, Jerry “Iceman” Butler, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, local polka hero Stas Bulanda, and Fred Armisen.
The Reader debuted with McCamant’s Maxwell Street photo on the cover, beginning a long tradition of great photography at the paper that lives on today, a half-century later. As it happens, the market was also a favorite shooting location for my dad, an acclaimed fine art photographer and photo professor (he founded the photo department at Columbia College). His Maxwell Street negatives were misplaced for years, but a few months ago they were located, and I told him I’d love to work with the archive, with the goal of publishing a book and producing an exhibit. He enthusiastically supported the idea. That was my last conversation with him; he died a couple weeks later.
My father has left the planet, but I look forward to keeping his legacy alive by sharing with the world his extraordinary photographs that captured the unique magic of the Maxwell Street Market. Much of what I know about photography I learned from not only my dad, but my 25 years at the Reader.