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Monthly Archives: May 2010

Linn with borrowed Hasselblad, 1958

I met Linn back in the mid-60′s, as Viet Nam and the civil rights movement boiled to the front pages.  I was a hippie, I guess, and Linn, a few years older, was more stable, had a nice loft, and a kind of job, and his huge studio, in OldTown on Chicago’s near-north side, became my crash pad. He’d converted it from a defunct 3000 sq. ft. restaurant. I shot a film when there, Leah, in 1967.  His places – he seemed to move every handful of years, with an eye to the next hot neighborhood – were always spacious and beautiful, with items others threw away, this and that, salvaged and turned into elegant decor. Since those first days Linn’s always been a reliable friend, and when transiting Chicago, a place to stay, a friend to see.  I stay in frequent touch in between these not-very-often visits.  Forty plus years now.

Through Linn – though it had been a serious thing for me earlier – my interest in photography was enlarged.  I liked his work back then, and we shared similar tastes: Frank, Lyons, Davidson, and of course, Walker Evans. His own work was usually very clean, direct, and he printed beautifully.  Although he made his living from photography most of the time, he had other talents too. He designed and converted loft spaces, physically doing all the work himself.  They were always beautiful his particular manner and I thought of them as being “Linn-ized.”  He was a partner in a retail gallery of American Indian Art and Artifacts and often traveled to the Southwest USA to buy jewelry and rugs and things, and in process he became an authority, consultant and appraiser of Native American art and artifacts. Later a 5 year stint as an equine photographer would again take him back and forth to the Southwest.

Over the decades, he said he longed to leave Chicago, and move to New Mexico. I confess, I never thought he would, never believed a word of it:  he was Chicago-bound, and his series on prostitutes and other disenfranchised people – low-life realities of the Windy City (or anywhere) kept his head stuck in the big city.  It’s in his blood, like it was in Saul Bellow’s.

His active photographic coverage of the ’68 Democratic convention and later the Conspiracy Seven trial, and then of the SDS Days of Rage in Chicago in the fall of 1969, which got him a Pulitzer nomination, all managed to keep him deeply connected to the city as well.

But his road trips, through America and particularly the American West, tempered his vision and expanded his viewpoint.  He always loved the “snapshot,” the way elements seem to come together on their own, waiting for someone to put a frame around them, and he grabbed them wherever he found them.

Though not ambivalent about photography at all, making a living in the field was always a bit elusive for him. He grabbed onto photography, like a life preserver he told me, at the age of 17, 2 years after he dropped out of school, and he never let go, never walked out the door without a camera over his shoulder.  He still does, even with his new bionic knee!

From our meeting in 1966 to the 68 Chicago Convention mayhem, through my days in California, then Oregon, then my Montana hippy-dropout days, and on to years abroad or in LA or NYC, right up to now, Linn was always my mid-west touchstone.  His door was always open, and cumulatively I probably stayed with him and his lady friends, more months that I could keep track of – and have a good handful of very memorable experiences from them.  Stories for another day.

We look to see him our next swing through America – in another year and some it seems.

Linn’s shot of me, late 1968 or maybe 1969

All photographs copyright Linn M. Ehrlich 2010

BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform

Lloyd Blankfein and Gary Cohen, CEO and President of Goldman SachsKip Lynch, Iraq war soldier, AlaskaLynch and family he killed along with himself, victims of PTSDQuilt, Harriet Powers, circa 1890

Glacier Park, MontanaRoute 3, Montcoal, W. Va.Butte, Mt., Lynn Weaver

Rare earth mine, CaliforniaUS-Mexican borderNear Douglas, ArizonaBarber shop, MichiganForeclosure eviction, MilwaukeeOilfield, western North DakotaWindmill blade manufacturing, Newton, IowaDillon Panthers, Austin, TexasBargirl, NYCPassage, painting by Stephen LackGulf of Mexico, BP platform

America, once, held out a promissory note stating:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

While it can easily be argued that this promise was from the outset fraudulent, in, for example, not including among its “men” the native inhabitants of North America, nor women, nor black people, or in being the construct of a slim minority of wealthy men who designed their formula for government to lean towards their benefit at the cost of others (one had to own land to vote back then), the promise nevertheless was given, and many in time took it to be genuine, and in steps it seemed the nation thus founded moved stumbling towards its original stated aims.

Today this promise seems, though, ever more questionable. The nature of our modern technological society, based on a capitalist economic system which didn’t really exist in our founder’s time, and a radically altered change of “shared values” seem to challenge it daily, in manners both obvious and near-invisible.  Life itself is challenged with the vast output of our society, which blindly produces things with no real accounting as to their impact on our very lives and the small globe we live upon. This very moment a river of toxins flows into the Gulf of Mexico, owing to the profit-minded practices of a giant corporation, which in collusion with a manipulated government, chose not to install a half-million dollar device which might have prevented the BP Deepwater Horizon well blow-out.  The price which this “accident” will incur is at present incalculable, and will never be meaningfully measured in that standard American yard-stick, the dollar.

The corruptions which led to this incident run like gold veins now throughout our entire culture – a corruption broadcast by radio and television in the fraudulent “news” that passes off propaganda as “truth” no less than did the old Soviet Pravda, which meant “truth.”  It runs through the highest institution of our “justice” system, the Supreme Court, which some months ago ruled that corporations have the same rights (if not the same responsibilities) as people, in a craven ruling which signaled that our political system has been completely purchased by the powers of business and wealth.  It runs through the common shared discourse of the nation in which the facile poisons of fame and celebrity are taken as virtues, and the squalid matters of movie stars and pop singers are of greater import for many citizens than are the chronic wars which eat as a cancer at our society.  It runs through the compliant participants who long ago forgot the originating impulse of our nation: no taxation without representation.  These days, the most represented – the corporations which now own the political structure and govern in their interests – pay the least in taxes, and those with no representation, the common citizens, are taxed proportionate to their incomes far higher than the richest.  So far have the founding structures of our social contract collapsed.

The fractious response to these ruptures is seen in the Tea-party, in the profound and deep alienation to be seen across our narrowed political spectrum, in whichever language it is spoken.  Our politicians seem like the embalmed figures of the late Soviet Union, sporting their emblems, caught in a turgid and dead language, speaking in the circular echo-chamber of their own dumb blindness.  Our American version is little different, and there is little reason to think that we will fare other than that imagined monolithic “union” did.  Our future is dissolution, the consequence of a terminal corruption of the commonweal which once, for a while, seemingly held us together.

Of course, from the very outset, it was all an illusion.


For further images from Stephen Lack, see his website.

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