This series was made in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen, the city's largest Latino community. The name Pilsen is derived from the original, mostly Czech, immigrants who established themselves there in the late 19th Century, close to the industries that employed them.
This is singularly a Chicago place, with its plain dwellings and shops pressed onto the grid of streets and alley. The predominate Mexican-American population has shaped the neighborhood. Public art, religious images and symbols, political posters and graffiti colliding with everyday advertising signs displayed in both Spanish and English; all overlain on the backdrop of late nineteenth and early twentieth century American architecture.
Photographing Pilsen is to take part in a performance. There is a vivid sense of magical realism on these streets, the exuberance of life reflected in all manner of shops, imagery and signs. In this series the images are panorama format, and multiple image combinations. This approach expresses my personal response of being there, of walking and responding to the kaleidoscopic affect of advertising, political and religious imagery that embody the neighborhood. As cinema vérité highlighted realism in motion pictures, my intent in this series is to heighten realism with photographs through a synthesized visual expression.
During the summer of 1988, I received permission to make portraits of people attending picnics held in Whiting Park, in Whiting, Indiana, along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. The picnics were sponsored by a variety of organizations, including retired railroad workers, Amoco (BP) employees, and even a support group of people recovering from laryngectomies, among other associations holding picnics there that summer. My method was straightforward. I used a 4x5 format camera, and set up an outdoor studio against the north side of a small park building. I asked individuals willing to have their photograph made to come before my camera. In return, I gave each person a Polaroid print from the sitting,
The inspiration for this series is Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, specifically the poem I Hear America Singing, "the varied carols" - his catalogue of the common citizen, the mechanic, carpenter, mason, boatman, shoemaker and the mother. Whitman goes on to say of the singers, that each is "singing what belongs to him or her and to none else." In late 20th century America, Whitman’s poem, given the demise and after effects of industrialization, can take on an ironic tone; especially in the Calumet Region, which at the time these portraits were made was witnessing the beginnings of transformative job losses, losses that to this day it has not recovered from. Nonetheless, it is Whitman's praise of the commoner, the quotidian in American life that interested me, and continues to influence my choice of subject matter to this day.