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Friday, June 11, 2010

A Conversation with Photographer and Sociologist David Schalliol


[Unless otherwise noted, all photographs by David Schalliol,]

Jessica Savitz: It’s hard to sometimes imagine the “B-sides” surrounding iconic photographs—how shocking it is in art history class when you learn that Evans’ famous depression era photograph of Allie Mae Burroughs is shouldered by many other shots within his study. Do you take countless photographs of a single subject, or do your photographs arrive whole and complete in the singular moment? (Pure magic: that bright red hat on the man in the Detroit parking lot at the APG.)

David Schalliol: I used to be more precise and shoot only one or two images for each selected photograph when I shot film, but that’s changed with digital. The number of shots of a single subject varies by the amount of time I have to compose the scene or the amount of movement within it, but it is not uncommon for me to take a six or seven shots of a particular scene. In rare cases in which there is a lot of movement by a variety of subjects, I may take dozens until I am able to, for example, capture the moment when people happen to be in the “right” places.

In the case of the photograph you reference here, I had been by the location a number of times but wasn’t happy with the number or placement of cars in the parking lot. Once the conditions were as I imagined the shot, I only snapped one or two other photographs before settling on the image you see.

JS: I love that Walker Evans’s created the cable release contraption (hidden in his sleeve) which allowed him to tuck his camera secretly into his jacket, with only the lens “peeping out between buttons”—how do you keep things covert when you are taking your photographs of people and neighborhoods? (Meyerowitz 290).

DS: While I do yearn for the intimacy of a hidden camera, I rarely shoot covertly.

In fact, I usually do the opposite.

I’m concerned about exploiting the people I photograph, so I typically make it clear that I’m on the street to photograph. I’ll often stand in the same place for a while and photograph as people are walking by. At night, the process is even more obvious because I’m nearly always using a tripod. Sometimes people stop and wait for me, others continue on their paths. I’m still not completely comfortable with photographing people, so I’m constantly reevaluating strategies for shooting on the street.

JS: What sorts of unusual situations have happened when you are behind the camera? What is it like when a photographic subject is aware of your presence, and have you witnessed the whole wheel of human behavior/emotion in your time with the camera?

DS: I think the most unusual situation is a general one: the persistent negotiation of being in the street with a camera. People react to its presence with everything from contempt to adoration. I’ve had gang members implore me to photograph other gang members who are handing out drugs, dozens of requests to take impromptu portraits of people and extremely aggressive reactions to someone simply seeing the camera around my neck. I’m generally positively received, but I’m always intrigued by people’s reactions to the camera.

JS: What is the most frightful experience you have ever had taking photographs? The most jubilant?

DS: The closest experience to a frightful one was being in the middle of an after school street fight on the West Side. I was working on a project in the area when a major fight broke out on Chicago Avenue. I was on the phone with an associate at the time, so I dropped that call, dialed 911 and stepped into the crowd with my camera. Despite the dozens of mobile phone cameras in the audience, I stood out for a variety of obvious reasons. A few friends of one of the combatants weren’t particularly pleased with my presence, so I stepped away after snapping just a couple of photographs (that didn’t turn out particularly well).

I suppose the most jubilant experience was the Barack Obama election night rally in Grant Park. I wasn’t only there to photograph the event, but I certainly took photographs throughout the evening. The entire evening was electrifying, but the eruption of cheers when the election was called was extraordinary.

JS: Where or whom do you wish you could photograph (but perhaps feel it would be too much of an infringement upon the photographic subject)? Is there a far-away place you long to document? Or another time period you wish you could revisit with camera in hand?

DS: I often wish I could visit other transitional times in the development of our contemporary social and economic systems, perhaps using the creation of a metropolis as a window into those processes. Such a project would combine specific historically significant moments with the daily life of the city. Thinking about Chicago, I imagine spending time with DuSable, documenting the struggles between Native Americans and those at Fort Dearborn, visiting select moments of the gradual expansion (and collapse) of the city, witnessing the Great Migration, and so on.

JS: What do the South and West sides of Chicago mean to you?

More than anything else, the South Side means home to me. It is where I live, work and typically play.

But the parts of the South Side that are home are very small parts of the whole.

When the South Side is combined with the West Side, that home is put in context of beautiful neighborhoods with fascinating histories but also tremendous problems.

I mainly focus on the transformation of those communities and many of the social problems that accompany years of divestment,

but it’s important to point out that both parts of the city have considerable demographic and economic variation.

JS: How do you think the character of life on the streets has shifted since Vivian Maier’s era?

Vivian Maier

What would Maier have witnessed through the lens in the ‘50s and ‘60s had she focused her attention strictly upon Chicago’s South and West sides?

DS: I’m not sure I can differentiate life on the street then compared to now with any authority, but it is certainly more restrained in some ways and in other ways far more extreme.

The restraint is due in part to the “cleaning up” of cities by administrations such as Mayor Daley’s, which have emphasized the role of a tourist-friendly downtown, additional trash pickup, decorative plantings and the shifting of those who are homeless out of sight. This cleaning up has been aided by the increasing prevalence of chain stores and other attempts as restraining differences in the built environment. The flipside is that many more street activities are marginalized and concentrated. Street altercations have clearly escalated while the streetscape has been changed to move people off of the street, further congregating them in ambiguous semi-public places.

Her images of the 1950s and 1960s on Chicago’s South and West Sides would have been a portrait in contrasts, of changing communities from new investment in public housing and the decline induced by redlining, among other factors.

Vivian Maier

But her human scale images would have brought more humanity to our understanding of those places and times.

JS: What would you ask Vivian Maier if you could talk to her in person?

DS: More than anything, I’d love to know Vivian Maier’s motivations, particularly given how many thousands of images remained (and remain) undeveloped by her. The act of photographing was clearly key, but her range of subjects and attention to detail hints at so much more.

* * *

A Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, David Schalliol is academically and artistically interested in issues of social stratification and meaning in the social and physical worlds.

In addition to his sociological and photographic activities, David plays an active role on several websites, including his work as Founder and Editor of metroblossom and Managing Editor of Gapers Block.

* * *

Please visit our blog site again soon; next week, we will showcase part three of the Schalliol interview.

The staff at MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. seeks to fully understand the arts in their particular cultural contexts and to analyze relationships between various artistic mediums and genres; in this way we can broaden our expertise as art appraisers. We are located just steps from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center; please do give us a ring to set up an appointment for a verbal evaluation of your most prized works of art.

Interview by Jessica Savitz

MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.

Principal Appraiser: Farhad Radfar, ISA AM

307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308

Chicago, IL 60601

Phone: (312) 814-8510

Works Cited:

Meyerowitz, Joel and Westerbeck, Colin. Bystander: A History of Street Photography. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.

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    Welcome to our blog site! MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. is a fine art and personal property appraisal company dedicated to serving clients throughout the United States and abroad since our incorporation in Chicago in 1994. We specialize in the multi-faceted field of appraising fine art, jewelry, antiques, and decorative items. We also provide professional fine art restoration and conservation treatment for various media, including but not limited to, artworks on canvas, board, masonite, and paper. We offer professional and precise appraisal services carried out by our team of accredited appraisers for the purposes of insurance coverage and claims, charitable donations, estate planning and probate, equitable distribution and fair-market value. We started our art commentary blog site as a venue for colleagues and fellow art enthusiasts to share their experiences within the art community.