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.
All photographs copyright Linn M. Ehrlich 2010