Today’s Paper

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Today: David Bowman, a Minneapolis-based photographer. Among his eclectic portfolio is work reflecting his strong attachment to the outdoors — particularly Minnesota’s North Shore. Bowman’s work has been featured across major publications. He also recently completed a project documenting a bike messenger in bustling Chicago — Mike, 50, one of Bowman’s childhood friends.

Reading

Used books are my favorite form of recycling. I enjoy finding clues in the margins, and I wonder who read them before me. My wife is an associate librarian, and she runs a Little Free Library on our busy corner in south Minneapolis. I built the Cape Cod-inspired structure from scratch with my dad. It’s dedicated to my father-in-law. He was a journalism professor at MCTC Minneapolis Community Technical College for more than 20 years. I recently found a crisp, signed edition of “The Seven States of Minnesota” by John Toren. In it, he divides our state into seven outdoor regions: Bluff Country, Southern Plains, Heartland Lakes and Forest, Arrowhead, Boglands, Iron Range, and Red River Valley. I find that the various geographic zones match my own experience as an itinerant artist, traveling across a changing landscape as I explore the state. I moved here 25 years ago and haven’t run out of people or places to photograph yet.

Following

I’m obsessed with the Great Lakes. My dad’s grandparents met on the North Shore in the late 1800s. He was a lumberjack, and she was a nurse. My parents lived on the Mesabi Iron Range, and my dad worked in a mine. Eventually they moved down to Chicagoland, where I grew up along the western shores of Lake Michigan.

I understand why many Minnesotans are worried about sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters. But to me, the more immediate threat from PolyMet’s copper-nickel mine is to the Great Lakes, whose watershed begins within hiking distance of the mine. Seven Beaver Lake is the headwaters of the St. Louis River, the largest tributary to Lake Superior on the American side. Sediment washes down this river toward Duluth, and into the Great Lakes beyond. I’m concerned that this mine will create permanent, toxic pollution in the headwaters of Lake Superior.

Watching

I’m a big fan of the Coen brothers, and their insider-as-outsider perspective on the Minnesota psyche. Recently I watched “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” on Netflix, which blew me away. I thought it was horrible at first, and then slowly became addicted — always a good sign. I also enjoyed “Fargo,” both the FX series and the movie. Because of the title, not many people realize that most of the movie was shot in the Twin Cities. To commemorate the film’s 20th anniversary, Mpls.St.Paul magazine commissioned me to rephotograph the remaining set locations in the metro area, exploring the passage of time through still photography.

Listening

Nothing beats listening to a good story while printing in the darkroom, or driving home late at night across the frozen tundra. My favorite audio books are by Cormac McCarthy. I love the language he uses to describe landscape, and our human connection to it.

Doing

I left Chicago more than 30 years ago, after I graduated from high school. Since then, everyone’s moved away. You could say the place I grew up is gone. But some things remain, including my best friend, Mike, who works downtown as a 50-year-old bike messenger. I caught up with him last fall, two cameras around my neck, and tailed him on a bicycle as he crisscrossed the Loop, delivering takeout meals across the city. Read the story, watch the movie, and view the stills on my website: Riding with Mike.

Read the original Star Tribune article here.

The Deluded City

Back in 2017, Der Spiegel sent reporter Claas Relotius to Fergus Falls to write about Trump supporters in small town America. He was there for 38 days, and his story “Where They Pray for Trump on Sundays was eventually published in Europe.

Unfortunately for him, however, a couple of savvy locals used Google to translate the article from German to English; They discovered that most of what he’d written was completely false… He just made it up.

Bürgermeister Ben Schierer, Fergus Falls, Minnesota

In response, the German newspaper BILD sent me up to Fergus Falls to photograph their reporter as he toured the town in the wake of the scandal. You can read the article (in German) and see the photos here.

Against Sexual Misconduct

I recently photographed University of Minnesota students for the “It Ends Here” sexual assault prevention and awareness campaign that focused on bystander intervention techniques. It was important that I create photographs that felt honest and real. This project also held personal significance, as my wife is a graduate of U of M and my daughter, who assisted me on these shoots, is attending next year.

For the estimate, the University of Minnesota sent layouts. These were computer-generated sketches that had been pieced together with a mix of scrap imagery over gradated backgrounds. These drawings weren’t necessarily photo realistic, but they conveyed the feeling that the university was looking for. It was up to me to figure out how to create portraits in the studio with similar mood and intensity. The first thing I needed to figure out was what type of light would work best for an intimate portrait of 3-4 students. We were dealing with serious subject matter, and it was very important that the finished photographs felt completely honest and real. So that meant I couldn’t plan on lighting the subjects individually, and compositing them together in post. The final images were going to be posters, plastered around the university, and they needed to feel authentic if we wanted the public awareness campaign to work.

The subjects were actual students, wearing their own clothes. So there was some trepidation as to how this was all going to come together, ie: How would I arrange the composition, light the subjects, and control the expressions on their faces? I couldn’t expect the students to compose the image for me. Nor could I tell them how to look and act regarding such an important topic. After all, their friends would be seeing these posters in the hallways between classes. These photographs had to be real. One of my favorite things about being a portrait photographer is letting a shot unfold, and discovering how someone reacts to being photographed. Oftentimes, a big part of my job is being a coach; helping people open up in front of the camera to look like their best selves.

My daughter Lucy is a senior in high school, and she loves photography and film. She’s planning to attend the University next year, so this seemed like a great opportunity for her to be involved in a photo shoot on campus. But it also felt like an important moment in the evolution of student life, and I was interested in not only getting her help with the project, but also getting her feedback on my approach to photographing the students. Like most of my assistants, we spend lots of time together making pictures, driving around, and talking about current events. It was valuable for me to get her input, and she enjoyed working on a project that might still be hanging in the halls when she arrives at college next fall.

Another challenge was the gradated backdrop. It was very subtle, and I had to decide which color and size seamless backdrop would work best. Even though it almost looks black in the layout, I decided to work with a medium gray. My reasoning was that it would be easier to darken the lighter backdrop by reducing the amount of light on it than it would be to brighten a roll of super dark seamless.

The primary function of the campaign was to raise student awareness regarding sexual misconduct on campus. In a world full of imagery competing for their attention, our goal was to get students to notice the posters on campus, identify with the students in the photographs, and read the copy (steps on how to respond to sexual harassment). 50,000 students attend the University of Minnesota, so getting noticed takes effort. My niece is a graduate student there, and she told me that she saw the posters all over the place and that her friends were talking about them.

Assistants: Mathew McIntosh, Lucy Bowman

North of North, part 2

I never thought much about shooting in the Boundary Waters, a wilderness canoe area in northern Minnesota. Frankly, it always seemed like the OPPOSITE of the kind of place I’d like to explore.

There’s no roads in the Boundary Waters; you have to travel by boat, and you need to camp out every night. Meaning you have to bring more than just camera gear. A lot more! Everything has to be carried on your back for miles between lakes, and protected from water, in case of a canoe tip (likely) — or sudden downpour (very likely). There’s no buildings, roads, motors, plumbing, electricity, or cell service.

And there’s plenty of bugs.

Any and all human-made structures that existed prior to the formation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness were demolished and sunk to the bottom of the lakes. Executive Order 10092, signed by President Harry Truman in 1949, prohibits aircraft from flying below 4,000 feet over the area.

Photographically speaking, what do the Boundary Waters have that other places don’t?

Skies so dark that you can see the Milky Way.

North of North

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

My brother and I shared a bedroom in Chicagoland until he turned 18. I listened to his records, accidentally broke his stuff, and watched him climb out our 3rd floor window late at night, listening to his stories when he returned. After he left for college, my high school teachers still called me by his name, thinking we were the same. During his first semester, I rode the train up to Milwaukee for a visit. We saw the Romantics in concert. Afterwards we hit the bars. I can still smell his dorm room: Speed Stick meets submarine sandwich.

By the time I was 17, he’d moved into a crusty apartment downtown Milwaukee, right behind the Ham N Egger. I parked my motorcycle in the alley, and slipped through the window that he kept unlocked for visitors. We ate white bread sandwiches for dinner and I climbed up to the rooftop for a smoke under the Newport billboard.

He joined the Peace Corps and left for Nepal. I started school in Madison. When he came to visit, we made a gallon of chili, drank Old Style, and got tattoos on our big toes. That Sunday night, I was the 10th caller on a radio show and won front row tickets for us to see Tom Waits in Chicago, on Halloween night. It was the perfect ending to a glorious weekend.

But we were heading different directions. I went to study in Ireland for a year, and he got engaged. Pretty soon he was married, running his own manufacturing business, and raising three boys. Meanwhile I’d become obsessed with photography and returned to Ireland to live on a bicycle. From there I moved to Chicago, rode a motorcycle to San Francisco, and joined a camel trek across the Australian Outback.

By the time I settled down in Minneapolis, my four brothers and sisters had birthed about 15 kids between them. My brother and I saw each other whenever we could. But we never really got to hang out again. At least not like we used to, with gallons of chili, cans of Old Style, and the occasional toe tattoo.

Until now that is.

I’m happy to report that we just rendezvou’d by the Canadian border, and disappeared into the wilderness for 10 days. We’re still eating chili, but the Old Style’s been replaced with lake water. And the tattoos… those things last forever.

Shadow Selfie

Surprised and excited to walk into the doctor’s office and finally see the 12-page hiking story that I shot last Fall… especially the full-page opener, which is my own shadow, impersonating the shape of a hiker.

It wasn’t easy hiding the camera — or shooting with my left hand, as the other hikers looked on in disbelief at my selfie-induced frenzy. Thanks MSP for the sweet assignment. Worth the wait!

A Pirate Turns 50

Sundays in 8th grade were pretty boring. Especially in winter. Our favorite indoor spots were closed, and it was too snowy and cold to do much outside except maybe walk around and smoke.

One Sunday in January Mike had an idea. His dad worked at an ad agency; They’d been given a bunch of outdoor swag by a client, including an inflatable raft. The plan was to get a ride out to Bemis woods in the morning, blow up the raft, and spend a lazy winter’s day floating down Salt Creek.

Montrose #1, Chicago, 2016. Silverprint from 4×5 negative

Even in the dead of winter, Salt Creek didn’t freeze. Maybe that’s because it wasn’t water. We thought of it more as a sewage cocktail, mixed with runoff and a dash of effluent, oozing down to the Chicago Sanitary Canal. We’d been warned not to fall in, or risk being infected with 22+ diseases.

Salt Creek wound it’s way through the Cook County Forest Preserve, a network of protected wooded zones spread out across Chicagoland. Originally designed as an urban oasis, by the 1980s it had become a no-man’s-land and reputed playground for mobsters and serial killers looking for a quiet place to dump a body.

Montrose #2, Chicago, 2016. Silverprint from 4×5 negative

We were in for a surprise. Apparently a 2-person river raft requires a lot of air, and we didn’t have a pump. Instead we unrolled it on the snow and took turns blowing into it until we were dizzy. Eventually the head rush was so bad that we decided to stop. We figured it was inflated enough to float us home.

Which it did, sort of. Lying on our backs, we drifted under highways and along hidden tracts of land for about an hour, until the boat got stuck on the shallow bottom. At that point we had to step into the creek with gym shoes and push. Without hats or gloves, and nothing to keep us warm except Irish coffee and cigarettes, we got cold.

Montrose #3, Chicago, 2016. Silverprint from 4×5 negative

The situation devolved. In our minds, we were lost at sea, stranded in a raft without means for rescue. The boat deflated and sank. We climbed out in the middle of the woods and our feet were numb. Abandoning ship, we hobbled back to Mike’s parent’s house, which was surprisingly close. I ran up to their bathroom and thawed my frozen feet in the tub, watching my toes shift from bright white to blazing red.

I borrowed some dry clothes from Mike and walked home. Sundays weren’t boring any more.

Mr. Imagination

1991. Clark & Belmont, Chicago.

The first thing I did after finishing college in Madison was hop on a plane for Ireland. My flight left from O’Hare, so I arrived in Chicago a few days early and crashed with former dorm mates at their North Side flat.

We went out to a bar across the street, a subterranean place directly under the elevated tracks that rumbled every time a train passed over. I met an artist who had been shot by a mugger a few years earlier, emerged from a coma, and changed his name to MR. IMAGINATION. He wore a suit covered with flattened bottle caps that had been folded over and sewn into his clothing like fish scales.

Mr. Imagination, Chicago, 1991. Silverprint from 35mm negative

Mr. IMAGINATION invited us up to his apartment, along narrow paths through rooms jammed with Egyptian sculptures. He lived in a wedge-shaped building with slow moving El trains out the windows on both sides that were so close I could read the headlines on the commuters’ newspapers jerking past.

I returned the next day with a camera and shot his portrait. I didn’t know it at the time, but six months later I’d be back in Chicago, and good friends with MR. IMAGINATION. I made him a print and he hung it up. Later, when the Terra Museum organized a retrospective of his work, they discovered the portrait and displayed it in the museum. It was my first gallery show.

First Selfie

1986: LaGrange, Illinois

My first selfie, shot in my room for a self-portrait assignment, due the next day. I had already broken my dad’s camera. This one was a loaner from my high school photography teacher, Nan Garside. I didn’t have a tripod, so I set the camera on the edge of my desk, which added some blur around the bottom of the frame.

Self Portrait, LaGrange, 1986. Silverprint from 35mm negative

I was about to graduate from high school. A couple weeks earlier I had seen the mountains and ocean for the first time, on a road trip to Daytona Beach for spring break with the guys from my lunch table.

I’d lived in the same house for 18 years, and it wouldn’t be long till I left for college in Madison, and moved away forever. This was the end. But also the beginning.

Preface

I grew up in Chicagoland with three sisters and one brother. The girls (including my mom) all had blue eyes. The boys had brown (dad too).

We lived in the same house, surrounded by the same neighbors, for the first 18 years of my life.  After high school, my parents moved away.

I left for college in an unfamiliar city and state, and became one of 50,000 students at a large public university. I studied journalism and developed insomnia. Then I discovered photography. I’ve been traveling since; still trying to find a way back home somehow.

After 20 years of shooting assignments, I’ve realized that individual photographs don’t really matter so much. Trends come and go, technologies change. Styles that seemed so important last year (or week) may not even register today. More likely, today’s conventional shots are tomorrow’s stock photos: Pretty on the surface… but potentially meaningless and outdated by the time they arrive as junk mail.

So what’s real?

Capturing honest moments that honor the people and places being photographed. Telling human stories that reveal the grace and beauty of real life, without artifice and convention. These are universal ideas, and they are timeless.

My advice: don’t look at the photographs. Rather, listen to the subjects, and validate what’s real. Capture honest pictures that defy convention. Honor the true story.

What’s your story?

Here’s mine: