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A HOLIDAY GIFT
"What a great story." That's what everyone says when they learn about Gary Stochl and his work (and I hope that you'll think the same). It is a great story, at once both uplifting and perplexing. Stochl's narrative is one of long-term commitment, ambition, talent, and an intensely personal vision. It's also a tale of isolation, which forces us to question our assumptions about how American artists, working today, are generally entangled in the complex web of the artistic community: schools, museums, galleries, funders, dealers, curators, critics, collectors, and publishers. What happens to an artist when he or she has no contact with that artistic community? Is it possible to be a serious artist without those connections-and what happens to the work of an isolated artist?
In late Spring 2004, Bob Thall returned to his office in the Photography Department at Columbia College (Chicago) to find a cluster of students waiting for the department's academic advisor. There was also an older fellow sitting there with a paper shopping bag. The secretary looked up with a troubled expression, nodded at him, and said, "Uh, Bob, this gentleman wants to show someone some photographs." Mr. Thall was busy, but he invited him into his office. Thinking that he was a returning student, perhaps an Art/Design major who wanted to place out of his photography requirement, Mr. Thall thought that this matter could be handled quickly. Gary Stochl sat down and said that he wasn't interested in taking any classes-that wasn't why he was there. "No?" Mr. Thall asked.
"No, I've been doing photography for forty years and really haven't shown my work to anyone. I thought it was time I started to do that. You're a Photography Department, so I thought I'd come here." He reached into the bag and pulled out a stack of loose prints perhaps eight inches high. Uh-oh, Mr. Thall thought, this is going to mess up my afternoon. "Listen," he said, "I have a meeting in just a few minutes, but I'll be happy to take a fast look at these before I have to go."
He started to flick quickly through the photographs. Stochl told Mr. Thall later that he was shocked at how little time he spent with those first ones. Well, Mr. Thall hadn't expected much. But, after about fifteen or twenty images, he had the odd feeling that this strange, chance meeting might be something exceptional, so he slowed down a bit. After another ten or twenty prints, he was no longer hurrying through Mr. Stochl's work. He'd forgotten about the fictitious meeting, and also about all of the very real things he had to do that afternoon.
Out of the 300 or so photographs he saw that first day, all of them were accomplished, serious images that consistently pursued a sophisticated visual and emotional agenda. Perhaps half the photographs were really excellent, and, of those, fifty or so were the kind of memorable, extraordinary images that notable photographers build their careers on. These pictures were reminiscent of iconic images that one expects to see in the history of photography books. One didn't expect to see them pop out of a shopping bag at a chance meeting.
He spent two hours with Stochl that first day. His colleagues Dawoud Bey and Greg Foster-Rice walked by, and he called them in to meet Stochl and see his work. Like Mr. Thall, they were stunned by the photographs. They tried to give him a crash course in getting his work out, covering topics such as editing and presentation. Finally, they asked him to do a preliminary selection and meet with them again. At the second meeting, they worked with him to edit a tight, representative sample. They felt that he needed to pare the large stack of photographs down to a number that a curator or dealer could manage on a first viewing. It was hard work. There were simply too many extraordinary images, and it was difficult to get down to a reasonably sized set of photographs.
It was clear that Gary Stochl's work was significant, and it was important that his photographs be known and have a public life in the photographic medium. As a part of the Chicago photographic community, it was appropriate that the Photography Department of Columbia College (Chicago) help. They matted some of the work and then made some calls to arrange introductions. Of the many people who took the time to see Stochl's work, the open-mindedness, enthusiasm, and generosity of David Travis, Liz Siegel, and Kate Bussard at the Art Institute of Chicago, photography dealer Shashi Caudill, collector Dick Press and Gregory Knight at the Chicago Cultural Center was impressive. It was also striking to watch how quickly Gary Stochl learned the ropes, jumpstarting a career that had been silent forty years.
There are two great traditions in modern American photography that are of
particular interest in this story. One might be called "Personal Documentary." This strain of photography began with Walker Evans. Photographers in this tradition may make highly descriptive and objective-looking images, but the real point is to collect evidence to support their views of life, no matter how subjective.
The tradition that counterweights, even opposes, this passionate advocacy of a subjective view of life is "Modernist Formalism." Photographers within this tradition pursue serious investigations into the nature of the photographic medium, thinking in terms such as "camera vision" and "picture space," indicating an interest in the reality of the photograph, independent of the "real" world. These photographs teach us about the photographic medium, and, perhaps more importantly, they attempt to make us conscious of our own thought processes and of the ways in which we see (or ignore) the visual world.
Many photographers working in Chicago have pursued either an intensely personal viewpoint or provocative, formalist work. Both traditions are worthwhile and challenging, but very few photographers anywhere ambitiously pursue both tracks at once. It's always difficult to reveal successfully an intensely personal and consistent view of life while integrating a sophisticated agenda of formal experiments and innovations. For the few who do try to combine these traditions, the photographic success rate is understandably low: lots of strikeouts, a hit every so often, and rarely a home run. What was so astonishing about seeing those first stacks of Stochl's photographs was that, although he was consciously trying to accomplish this difficult balancing act, the normal odds didn't seem to apply to him. He hit it out of the park over and over again.
Gary Stochl first saw the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson (and, later, Robert Frank) in the 1960s and was inspired to buy a Leica camera to begin photographing. Frank's influence is clear in Stochl's work, but while Frank's photographs express a political and social reaction to an entire nation, Stochl's photographs of life on the streets of Chicago deal with the texture and drama of single lives. Stochl visually describes ordinary people as individuals, not as examples of American stereotypes. He photographs a diverse range of Chicagoans with an alert exactness that is neither flattering nor unkind.
Gary Stochl's photographs rarely contain the dramatic moments or the weird, ironic juxtapositions that often attract street photographers. Instead, with unnerving directness and consistency, Stochl's photographs present people who seem to struggle with the difficulty and loneliness of normal everyday life. The honesty and grimness of the images can at times be disturbing and, like all good art, leave the viewer with an altered sense of the world. From the first photographs he made in the 1960s to photographs he made last month, Stochl's images present a consistently tough-minded and dark view of life.
Simultaneously, his photographs also pursue a program of visual experimentation with remarkable skill, intelligence, and patience. Stochl often constructs complex photographs in which the frame is split into two or three sections, each with subtly different, but crucially interconnected content. In other photographs, reflections, openings in walls, barriers, and other elements not only separate the people photographed, but also relate them to the larger urban landscape. In some images, implausible coincidences of tone and gesture are used to reveal subtle and important content. Exquisite moments of light and shadow are often employed in the photographs to create a dramatic stage set for ordinary life in a major American city.
It is astonishing that Gary Stochl has photographed intensively for forty years, and continues to work at an admirable pace, without any of the normal support and encouragement artists typically seek and enjoy. He had no teachers, no exhibitions until his first show in the Fall of 2003, no community of like-minded photographers, no dealer, no sales, no commissions, no publications, no reviews, no grants, and no job in the field. Nothing. Absolutely nothing for almost forty years. And yet he's consistently worked with astounding dedication, self-discipline, and ambition, all bedrocks of the creative process.
Ending this story, it is valuable to reiterate the powerful observations made in the introduction: Stochl's story is a tale of isolation, which forces us to question our assumptions about how American artists, working today, are generally entangled in the complex web of the artistic community: schools, museums, galleries, funders, dealers, curators, critics, collectors, and publishers. What happens to an artist when he or she has no contact with that artistic community? Is it possible to be a serious artist without those connections—and what happens to the work of an isolated artist?
Like all great stories, this one holds some lessons. Gary Stochl's long journey should re-teach us the importance of devotion, perseverance, and personal vision. His story suggests that many of us should care a bit less about our careers and reputations and a bit more about our work. His story recommends humility when some of us confidently assume that we know well the recent history of photography, that we know who’s who and exactly what’s been done in photography. His photographs remind us that descriptive photographs can gather extra meaning and importance as time goes by. Although Stochl never intended to document downtown Chicago, his images will, over time, become a wonderful, important historical resource for the city. Finally, Gary Stochl's story can teach us that great work can eventually find the audience it deserves.
The University of Chicago Press published a book of Stochl's photographic work last year, and a second volume is currently scheduled for publication.