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Spotlight: The Chicago Photography Collective

Four people started meeting for lunch once a month, then something clicked, and a vision took shape. A deliberate community of visual artists was born.

The Chicago Photography Collective has attracted more than 25 professional photographers to its membership. It serves as a support system, but it also wants to help foster an identity for photography in the city, member Damon Shell said. New York or LA photography has a distinct identity, Shell said, but Chicago’s identity is still in need of definition.

“Building a community” is the most rewarding part of the collective, said Paul Natkin, a lifelong Chicagoan and music photojournalist who helped found the group and has worked in the field for 37 years.

The Chicago Photography Collective hosts exhibits of its members' work at a gallery at 108 N. State St., just inside the Block 37 building entrance. Jan. 21, 2012. (Photo Credit: Colleen Kujawa)

Members of the collective participate in regular exhibits of their work to offer their take on a particular theme. A storefront at 108 N. State St., just inside the entrance of the Block 37 building, serves as their exhibition space. The gallery is part of the Chicago Loop Alliance’s Pop-Up Art Loop initiative, which “transforms empty storefronts in the Loop into a moveable feast of public art galleries, exhibits and studios.”

The collective’s latest exhibit, In Opposition, is on display through March 3.

The group’s last exhibit Out in the Cold, a look at winter in Chicago that ended its run Jan. 28, featured the work of 13 members. Five members of the collective offered their thoughts on their careers and photography while responding to questions about the exhibit: Ron Gordon, in the field for nearly 40 years; Tom Palazzolo, since the 1960s; Beth Rooney, about seven years; Damon Shell, 20 years; and Alan Teller, almost 50 years.

What brought you to the city to work as a photographer?

Gordon: Born here and have lived here most of my life.

Palazzolo: We (he and his wife, Marcia) like the energy of the city and wanted to study with well-known teachers, her with Aaron Siskind, me with Ken Josephson.

Rooney: I am from Chicago and moved back here after studying at Ohio University in Athens. I did an internship, traveled a bit before ultimately settling here.

Shell: I grew up around St. Louis, Mo., and received my degree in photography from Webster University there as well. I traveled to Chicago quite a lot during this time and fell in love with the city. My path took me to California for several years after college, but Chicago was always one of the places that I felt most at ease.

Teller: I started an inner-city photo workshop on Chicago’s West Side in the early 1970s. I had just dropped out of a Ph.D program at Indiana University and thought Chicago would be a good place to put my photographic skills at the service of social change. We all believed in that back then.

What photographic genre or method do you work with? Why?

Gordon: I work in film and digital formats. Film in large, medium and 35 mm formats and digital in small camera only.  My career over almost four decades has spanned the changes in media.

Palazzolo: I’m a street photographer, sometimes called a grabber. (Marcia) is more of an experimenter, fine art work. She’s looking for beauty. I want the truth, a moment in time or sometimes a narrative.

Shell: Now I work strictly digital, but this was born out of convenience rather than any aesthetic preference. I love the darkroom process of mixing the chemicals, burning and dodging, seeing the image slowly arise from a blank sheet of paper … it’s all very cathartic to me, very Zen. But several years back, due to the financial costs of leasing darkroom space, I decided to go digital, and the limitations of digital at the time really reshaped how I shoot and my choice of subject matter. So really, more than anything, this simple switch from film to digital sent me on an entirely different visual path and shaped my entire body of work.

Teller: Started in documentary, moved to experimental, moved to abstract landscape, now to photo-constructions. You need to find a way to express your many selves.

Marc PoKempner images, exhibit "In Opposition," Chicago Photography Collective, Chicago (Photo Credit: Andrew Roddewig)

What drives you as a photographer? In other words, what gets you out of bed to take photos?

Gordon: I have always been self-motivated. Changes in the living landscape intrigue me. I photograph places and buildings that may not be here tomorrow.

Palazzolo: We both feel we can make a contribution to the art form. It’s important to explore our ideas, look for new avenues. For us, it’s a language, a way of communicating.

Rooney: My curiosity about the world.

Shell: For me, the images I generally take are in response to our modern chaotic American existence of constantly rushing to meet arbitrary deadlines, a response to seemingly always being disengaged, distracted and preoccupied with all of our pocketable, portable devices and to the notion that the calm we seek can only be found in nature and the natural world. I seek scenes that, lost in a greater context of their surroundings, are often overlooked. I am drawn to isolate these things I shoot based on their inherent subconscious calming aspects of color, line, form and structure, and sometimes merge the apparent disconnect between the natural and the man-made in order to give myself and hopefully the viewer a sense of pausing, inward reflection and order amid the constant barrage of sensory data that we encounter constantly.

Teller: The need not only to express myself but to order my experiences. Crafting a photograph gives me control over my world.

What do you admire about your colleagues’ photography in Out in the Cold?

Gordon: Each photographer has a unique personal point of view. I have always admired the tenacity and obsessive nature of true photographers, and this is amply displayed in this and most of our exhibits. I see this in the older photographers and am impressed to see it in the very young as well.

Palazzolo: We admire their originality and vision, and they are damn good printers.

Rooney: The variety in approaches, both in subject and technique.

Shell: Whether it be a social mindset that asks us to reflect on those who have to suffer this weather without a roof over their head or lighthearted scenes of the annual Polar Bear Plunge or the scenes of the natural world, I love the various interpretations of the theme.

Teller: Everyone has a unique take on the theme. This is good.

Do you have any advice for people (the public) who are looking to deepen their appreciation for photography?

Gordon: Each viewer has his or her own point of view, history and perception. Trust your instincts and judgment. There aren’t any magic answers. One person’s point of view is as valid as another. Just enjoy what you are looking at and take inspiration from it.

Palazzolo: My advice for the public would be to school themselves on the history of this great art form.

Rooney: Just keep looking at images; keep going to galleries. It helps me, too.

Shell: I would say to really go to every exhibition of photography in the city that you can and speak with the artists if possible. It is so difficult in this age where we are inundated with millions of photos daily via sites like Flickr, Facebook, etc., to really understand and appreciate what true photography is and the training and artistry involved in making compelling work.

Teller: READ and LOOK. Go to the Daiter Gallery, the Art Institute, Columbia College. Buy photo books. Take a class somewhere. See as much as you can and get familiar with the history of photography. It’s a never-ending exploration.

What is most rewarding about being a member of the Chicago Photography Collective?

Gordon: I would say that it is the mixture of generations and approaches that is the most rewarding. Sometimes one tends to get a little jaded, and it is great to see the enthusiasm and high energy of the young photographers.

Palazzolo: Being a member of the co-op has been a great opportunity to share ideas, opinions and camaraderie with other photographers.

Rooney: The motivation is great. It keeps me connected and involved … even when I think I am too busy to do anything else.

Shell: Definitely being surrounded by the diversity of styles and experience. The ability to bounce ideas off of your peers and seeing just how differently we think as artists and what motivates us, yet still being able to work together for the greater good of the group and for Chicago photography in general is quite rewarding.

Teller: It’s a chance to be with other serious photographers, ones who understand the power of the medium. This isn’t a camera club, a hobby, something to do to kill time. All of us share a passion. This makes for an exciting, sometimes volatile group.

Read more about the Chicago Photography Collective in a report on the group’s January exhibit, Out in the Cold.

View a slide show of the Chicago Photography Collective’s current exhibit In Opposition below.

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