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!

Camper Cabin

Camper cabin in the woods: Hallie’s inside with the girls, strumming the ukelele and making up songs. I’m out in the woods with a camera, dodging mosquitos and listening to the sweet sound of their voices.

Toxic Secrets

The Sydney Morning Herald sent me to St. Paul to shoot stills + video for a heartbreaking front page story about kids, chemicals and cancer.

Toxic Secrets: The town that 3M built – where kids are dying of cancer. Read the story, see the photos, and watch the interviews here:

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.

B+W Art Car

In 1998 I was featured on the 10 PM news for driving an art car taxi downtown St. Paul. I didn’t own a TV, so the reporter sent me a VHS tape to watch later. Just found it!

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.