It started out like any other trip to hear an artist lecture at Parkland College's Giertz Gallery. Until it wasn't.
It was one of my earlier assignments as Smile Politely's new arts editor and I was glad to be heading to a venue I knew well. Thanks to materials made available to me from Lisa Costello, the gallery's gracious and knowledgeable director, I was prepared to listen to photographer Jason Reblando talk about the work he contributed to Parkland's 2018 photography invitational, Locale.
The work examines life at Chicago's Lathrop Homes (see above photo), which as Reblando explains in the show's catalog and on his website, was "one of the first public housing complexes built in Chicago and designed in the spirit of the English “Garden City” movement." Reblando's photographs "reconsider the residents, landscape, and notion of public housing that has otherwise been marginalized."
As a city kid who grew up across the road from a similar "Garden City-style" complex, the topic literally hit home. I even started composing questions and story ideas during the ride over. The night was bitter cold and the streets were icy. And as I walked inside the gallery, it appeared that the weather had gotten the best of many potential audience members. I was one of maybe four who were not there with their Parkland photography class.
Reading his audience and thinking on his feet, Reblando straight-up asked the audience if they would rather talk about photography, how to create a portfolio, and, more importantly, how to find your subject. So for the first half of the night, Reblando put on his instructor hat (he teaches photography at Illinois Weslyan) and got right down to it.
What followed was the story of how Reblando found his subject and gained acess to it. Here's the Cliff Notes version. He came to Chicago, began studying photography on a class- by-class basis. Wanting to get out and explore the city, he found himself at a local gym where he started photographing young boxers. As trust and relationships were built, he learned where they were from and this eventually lead to his ongoing exploration of public housing.
Below are the lessons I learned that night:
- Writers/photographer/artists must carefully navigate the complex web of personal access to her subjects. This becomes even more complicated if the subjects hold less socio-economic power than the artist. Start with honesty and respect. Start by listening. Start by sharing your work. Reblando brought prints to each of the boxers he photographed and this went a long way in building relationships.
- As a student writer/photographer/artist explore, engage, and be curious. Find something or a group of someones who spark your creativity. For Reblando, it all started with boxing. Then he found he was most interested in boxers at the cusp of adulthood and what their images said about masculine culture. You can learn how to devlop film, or master Photoshop. But no one can teach you to be curious. Curiousity is the main ingredient in any successful creative career.
- "Go one inch wide and a mile deep." This favorite expression of Reblando's came from one of his mentors. It's a good one. It means find your subject and don't stop digging into it. Keep asking questions, keep learning more. Don't feel that you have to cover wider ground.
- Having other interests and other areas of study in your toolbox helps. Reblando's background in sociology grounded his work on Lathrop Homes, and has added a layer of depth to his photography and his teaching.
- Build relationships, good ones built on trust, in and around the work you want to do. Maintain a good reputation and be open to meeting new people and asking for help.
- There are richly layered stories to tell everywhere. You just need to look. The stories of these Lathrop Homes residents created openings into larger discussions of poverty, public housing, the importance of greenspaces in our lives, while still remaining their own unique stories.
Jason Reblando is such a great story teller, I'll let him tell you the rest himself.
I can't tell you how glad I am that I drive a bad-weather-friendly car and that I didn't let the cold keep me having this transformative experience. Champaign-Urbana offers opportunities like this throughout the year. And many of them are free and open to the public. So next year, resolve to cross the town-gown divide every now and then. You'll definitely learn something.
Learn more about Jason Reblando and his work on his website.
2400 Bradley Avenue
Exhbit open through February 2, 2019
Photos from the artists website. Video taken by Debra Domal