David Bernstein of The New York Times tells the wonderful story of how street photographer Gary Stochl was discovered.
"We get a lot of older students at the college, and I thought he
was a returning student trying to place out of a class," recalled Bob Thall, Chairman of the Photography Department at Columbia College Chicago. "He had this gigantic pile of 300 or so pictures just loose
in a paper shopping bag. That was kind of a bad sign. Anyone who had
gone through one of our Photo 1 classes would have been much more
sophisticated about how to show work to somebody. But as I
flipped through the pictures," he continued, "maybe I got through 20,
25 pictures. I was shocked by how good some of them were."
In contrast to Thall, Rod Slemmons, director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago, comes across as narrow-minded. "But if he’s just as good as Robert Frank, or someone like that, we’d rather spend our money on Robert Frank."
The Chicago Tribune notes that Stochl’s only formal photographic training was a course in high school. An online gallery of Stochl’s photographs appears at Americanplaces.org, where Thall has written a must-read introduction to the works.
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.
Besides teaching a lesson about persistence and artistic vision, though, Thall says Stochl’s experience forces us to question our ideas of art.
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?
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