By Ken Tanaka
I love a good little story, even if it’s true, but especially if it involves photography. Here’s a dilly from a few years ago that I think you’ll enjoy.
One day in 2004, Bob Thall, chair of Chicago’s Columbia College Photo Department, was met at his office by a rather unusual visitor. Amid the usual young students was a middle-aged man with a paper shopping bag. Thall’s secretary told him that the man said he had some photos to show someone. Thall invited the man into his office where he introduced himself as Gary Stochl. He told Thall that he had been doing photography for forty years but hadn’t really shown his work to anyone. He thought Columbia College’s photo department was a good place to start.
What a start! After browsing some of the approximately 300 loose prints from Stochl’s shopping bag Thall abandoned his afternoon schedule and instead, with some of his colleagues, spent the next two hours reviewing the rest. Those black and white prints captured on downtown Chicago’s streets since the 1960s were some of the best street photographs he had ever seen. According to Stochl he had become inspired by studying the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank during high school in the 1960s. He bought a Leica and took to the streets of downtown Chicago to find his own style. He had been photographing mostly in this same area continuously ever since.
Since that first jolting meeting Thall and others have helped Gary Stochl find his place as the significant photographic talent that he is. Stochl’s work has since been exhibited, collected by individuals and museums, and published. On City Streets is the first published collection of some of Gary Stochl’s work, but hopefully not his last.
In his introduction Bob Thall presents an excellent academically-oriented explanation of why Stochl’s work is so good. He expresses particular surprise that Stochl could have become so skilled outside the confines of formal art education and the support of the art community. (I find this a bit humorous since I believe formal photographic education has not been a particularly positive or productive influence on photography. But I’ll leave that subject for another day.)
I can offer a simpler explanation for why Gary Stochl’s images have become my favorite body of street photography and my own gold standard. Yes, nostalgia and familiarity are factors. As a native Chicagoan and downtown resident I know, or remember, many of the images’ locations very well. In fact I am photographing at many of those same places nearly each week. But this work is not at all place-cast; even someone who’s never visited Chicago will likely find these images exceptional and often haunting. No, what makes this work so darn good is that it so perfectly embodies the four ingredients required to create good candid street imagery; an imaginative eye, the ping-pong timing reflexes to react to that imagination, the technical skill to actually use a camera to get the shot, and, most importantly, the courage to actually do it. Browsing through "street" galleries at photo sites such as Flickr will confirm that these are very, very rare qualities to encounter behind a lens.
But Stochl actually goes far beyond those prerequisites. He captures the gestures, the juxtapositions, and the frame compositions to package the humor and enigmas that the greatest street photography consistently delivers. What makes his images so darn good is that, like all of the genuinely great street shots, they brand themselves deeply into your eye’s memory. Myself, I never tire of looking at them. I keep this little book on my desk and pick it up often. It’s become somewhat like a mentor; I feel recharged and re-inspired after spending a few minutes browsing Stochl’s images.
If you enjoy looking at street photography, but particularly if you enjoy practicing it, On City Streets is simply a body of work you must see. Gary Stochl may never enjoy the fame and fortune of the biggest names in this photo genre but he certainly deserves as much attention. And what a terrific story, eh?
(Note: Softcover only)
ADDENDUM: And in an almost eerie case of parallelism, check out "'The Man Who Waited,'" about Robert Bergman, at The Wall Street Journal. Another terrific story. You've got to read this. Thanks to John Camp for passing this one along. —MikeFeatured Comment by Dan Mouer: "It was exciting opening my morning dose of TOP and finding this story about Gary Stochl immediately after having seen the CNN story about Sevket Sahintas, Istanbul's Street-shooting taxi-driver. I guess street photography still thrives in the 21st century. Time to load some Tri-X into the Bessa and take a walk...."