Summer In The City / David Schalliol

In May, after stumbling upon the work of photographer David Schalliol one evening, I posted a link to his Web site and three selections from Isolated Buildings, one of the collections you’ll discover when you visit.

Because I was interested in his work I decided to ask a few questions, and was pleased by his gracious response. I hesitate to call what follows an interview…it’s just one photographer being curious about another.

LFT: You describe yourself as a “sociologist and photographer.” Which came first, the sociologist or the photographer?

David: I see my development as a photographer and sociologist as interrelated. While there were all sorts of influences on both—from early art classes to a love of reading—my general interests in social issues and their expression developed while a teenager in a northern suburb of Indianapolis.

As one of the suburban alienated, I simultaneously found critical books and punk rock. On the book side, dystopian novels were first, but they were pretty quickly followed by more journalistic fiction like The Grapes of Wrath and then popular sociology like Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. This general foundation found resonance in the Indianapolis hardcore punk scene of the early 1990s, which was intensely political.

In addition to playing in bands and participating in scene-based activism, I photographed shows, protests and the often marginalized neighborhoods surrounding show spaces in Indianapolis. As I became more comfortable with my camera, I sought the unfamiliar on the edges of suburbia—typically the abandoned farmhouses waiting to be demolished to make way for another housing development. I felt an urgency to carefully frame a doorway or kitchen sink, knowing the landscape was transitional, temporary. By the time I finished college, all of the farmhouses were gone.

I was able to further unite my interests in college and quickly became certain I wanted to head into academia in order to teach and research about social problems. After considering political science and economics, I settled on sociology for its flexibility and interdisciplinary theoretical grounding. I’ve since thought of my formal academic and photographic work as focused on transformation and social stratification. Despite the overlapping themes, it’s only been in the last three (or so) years that I really feel like I’ve been able to unite the two—and even doing that is difficult. I still think of myself as sociologist and a photographer.

LFT: How did you become an alienated teenager?

David: My initial push towards being an alienated teenager occurred when my family moved back to Indianapolis from San Diego at the beginning of junior high. Being in an environment that was at once familiar and significantly transformed gave me a detachment from the dominant social setting that amplified with time.

LFT: What was the attraction of punk rock? What instrument did you play?

David: Punk provided a creative voice for my observations and my burgeoning political conscience. In the bands I typically played guitar, although I also sang or played bass. If you’re interested in hearing a song from a band I was in during 1994 and 1995, I uploaded one here.

LFT: Any posters on your bedroom walls?

David: I mainly remember posting local show flyers, although I definitely had a British REM poster for their Green tour and some ridiculous heavy metal magazine pullouts.

LFT: Your earliest photo efforts…the marginalized neighborhoods, for example…were those in color or did you start out in black-and-white?

David: Most of my photographs from 1992-1999 were in black and white. I love good black and white prints, but I mainly shot in that medium because it was what was available. I sought darkroom instruction in junior high and high school, and in those classes (and, later, independent studies), I learned to process black and white film and color slides. We rarely had the chemicals for color work, so I stuck with the black and white shots. In college I only had access to black and white machines, other than one summer when I worked at a small photo lab.

LFT: Does any of that early work survive today?

David: I’m still really happy with some of my photos from those periods, and I have all of the negatives and prints. Unfortunately, the few bad scans I have online aren’t the best from then, but they’ll give you an idea of the landscape: Mid-1990s Hardcore and Indiana, 1994.

I’ll eventually go back and assemble a collection of my favorite photos from the era, but I don’t expect I’ll have the opportunity for some time.

LFT: You’re shooting digitally these days: what’s in your field kit?

David: I have a mix of antique and contemporary cameras and lenses, although I typically shoot with a Canon 5D Mk II, with a Canon 5D as a backup. When I go out into the field I typically bring the following: 16-35mm f/2.8 L II, 24mm f/3.5 L II and the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, although it depends on what I’m planning on shooting.

LFT: How do you find your subjects? Do you have contacts that help, or is it simply the photographer driving around and looking?

David: The vast majority of the locations I photograph are discovered through exploration. Of course, certain subjects (like those in my Chicago Housing Authority series) are based off of predetermined locations, but I spend a lot of time simply traveling around the city looking for interesting subjects. The initial direction in which I travel is usually determined by thematic interests alongside environmental factors like the quality of the light.

After that initial direction is determined, I’m flexible. I continue until I see something that piques my interest; after that, I usually follow that course until something suggests I go in another direction — for example, particularly bright lights on the horizon. Given that the built environment is always changing in response to light, human use and other factors, I’m able to return to the same neighborhoods dozens of times with dramatically different results. Even after years of photographing for hours a week in some neighborhoods, I’m still not tired of any location on Chicago’s South or West Sides.

LFT: Some of the derelict neighborhoods look dangerous, especially at night. Do you work alone or have an assistant?

David: I almost exclusively photographed alone for the first few years of shooting at night in Chicago, although I’ve mainly been exploring with my girlfriend and the occasional friend for the last year and a half. The dynamic is a little different when I’m out with someone, but the process is basically the same. I’m always driving when photographing at night, so I usually stay near the car in case of trouble, and I do my best to be aware of my surroundings. I’ve found that people are typically simply curious about what I’m doing in their neighborhood and usually enjoy talking about where they live. Of course, there are occasionally problems, but they have been few and far between.

LFT: Any tips for photographers contemplating this type of photography?

David: I don’t know if this advice is obvious or not, but following one’s instincts is important. I’ve found that my mind is aware of much more than conscious thought. One example took place on a morning when I’d been photographing a series of abandoned houses. It was early in the morning, and I was familiar with the area, so I wasn’t being as mindful of the immediate surroundings as I should have been. I was walking around the side of a building when I had a feeling that something wasn’t right. I immediately stopped and actively listened. I heard voices coming from the back of the house. As I backed up, I saw a circle of young men standing around packages that I assure you weren’t luggage. I’m sure that wouldn’t have been a good situation to walk into. Since then, I’ve been even more careful, and I try to be all the more aware of what my instincts tell me.

Other than that, my main advice is to learn to read the environment in order to better understand what is going on around you.

LFT: How did you come to live and work in Chicago?

David: While I applied to sociology programs in urban and rural settings, I ultimately selected Chicago for the University of Chicago and the opportunity to closely study the urban manifestations of social stratification. Clearly, it’s been instrumental in my photography as well.

(Ed. note: As we exchanged emails during the summer David moved temporarily from his Chicago base to Detroit.)

LFT: You’ve spent the summer working in Detroit. What was that like?

David: This question finds me on my first full day back in Chicago. In total, I spent two and a half months in Detroit.

Given recent media coverage of the city, it goes without saying that working there was challenging. Considering so much of my work is based on the particulars of the built environment, moving from Chicago to Detroit provided considerable difficulties alongside the obvious opportunities. Of course, the primary issue was crafting a body of work that could contribute to a conversation about Detroit with at least some nuance. While I planned to continue working in under-served neighborhoods, I was determined to present more than the ubiquitous Detroit “urban exploration” scenes.

I did continue working on series that addressed phenomena shared by Chicago and Detroit, but a few strategies helped focus my attention on Detroit as Detroit. One was reflecting on the few functioning streetlights off of the main streets. While most every neighborhood in Chicago is fairly well illuminated, Detroit neighborhoods are not. Even our street in a highly functioning neighborhood in Mexicantown was totally unlit until about a month into the summer, when one light bulb was installed in one of the streetlights. I addressed that issue in most of my night photographs by producing generally dark images that emphasize privately owned light sources: two examples are here and here.

Another strategy was thinking about the relationship between occupied and unoccupied buildings, rather than exclusively addressing abandonment. There are an obscene number of derelict structures in Detroit, but given how well those structures have been documented, I wanted to represent how those buildings are integrated into residential and commercial neighborhoods. Again, two examples, here and here.

Those issues (among others) were exciting to address, and I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to work in Detroit.

LFT: Your Detroit work includes several examples of people-in-the-environment. Are you heading away from a straight documentation of buildings?

David: While I do have a sketch of a long-running series of photographs involving people on Flickr, the proportion of photographs that featured people in Detroit was certainly larger than usual. Those images were partially a conscious decision to represent the presence of life in Detroit, but they were also the result of a variety of special situations in which taking photographs of people was appropriate. I’m particularly pleased with a few of the images, so the experience may lead me to include more images of people in the coming months. In part, that decision will be based on what is going on in Chicago. Regardless, the built environment will continue to be my primary subject.

LFT: At the time you were there the Pistons signed Ben Gordon away from the Bulls. Coincidence, or are you also going to jump over to the Motor City?

David: I am neither able to confirm or deny any association between the actions of the Pistons organization and my temporary relocation to Detroit.

LFT: 2009 was a busy year for you. What can we expect in 2010?

David: I’m expecting a lot more activity in 2010. If all goes well, I’ll be continuing my current photographic and sociological projects and more tightly linking the two. I also have plans to start a couple of new projects I’ve wanted to do for a while now, including one that may be getting some funding. If that goes through, expect to see more shots from elsewhere in the U.S. added to my Chicago and Detroit series. It promises to be an exciting year.


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