D.R. Martin: Streets of Duluth: 1968-1971K. Praslowicz
Hi! I don't do as much text blogging as I used to, as most of my efforts have shifted towards video content. Please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel.View The Channel
This summer I tried doing something a little different with photography. I took a break from my own work and instead worked at putting together a show for a different artist.
The show I orchestrated ended up being a collection of street photography taken around Duluth and Superior by photographer/author D.R. Martin between 1968-1971.
The first half of this post is the web gallery of every image in the show presented with some additional commentary by D.R. After the gallery is my write up on how the show came to be, and some other thoughts about it.
Museum grade prints of any images can also be purchased. $100 for a medium-sized print (approx 9.5"x14") or $125 for a larger print (approx 13.5"x20"). Please contact me if you are interested in buying any.
The Web Gallery
Somehow, a year of periodic perusals of The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson had prepared me for my first foray onto the streets of Duluth. I’d soaked in the street-photography principles I needed. This shot is from the first roll of film in my street project. I recognized the composition forming as these men moved. I brought up my camera (the stalwart Canon TL, which made a robust “ker-CHUNK” sound when the shutter was released) and grabbed one exposure. It wasn’t until later that I realized I’d also photographed my own shadow. This picture, as much as any, shows what Duluth felt like in those days—an old rust-belt city starting to look a little down on its luck.
When I included this picture in a show I had at the Tweed Museum at UMD in Duluth, I was contacted by this woman’s daughter (a photographer herself). She recognized the hat, the fur coat, the energetic posture. Her mother had been a teacher at the old Central High School in downtown Duluth. And it was near there that I caught her surging along through the snow.
I have no recollection of how this image came to be. Maybe the woman saw my new camera and asked me to take her picture. Maybe I asked her. However it happened, she seems delighted to model for me. The man by the jackhammer air compressor looks amused by our little tableau. Everybody was happy, including the photographer.
Here, under a shelter on Superior Street, a businessman strides along, scoping out the construction work being done to his left. I made this shot with a newly acquired Nikon F and a lovely, sharp 85mm lens that I still have and use. Without the foreshortening the little telephoto provided, I don’t think it would have worked.
This image is from the second roll of film I shot as a street photographer when I was roaming around letting my reflexes make the decisions. The old woman is touching fingers to lips, concentrating on something. The man walking along on the right, coming up from behind me, has seen the camera and wonders what’s going on. He doesn’t quite like the cut of my jib. But in four-plus years of street shooting, I only was chased twice and had bodily harm threatened once. I suppose that’s not bad for someone purloining images on the street.
Here’s a child who was tickled to have her picture taken, though a portrait wasn’t my intention. Every now and then the candid street shooter gets “busted,” but this time I’m happy I was. She and her plain little dress make me smile whenever I look at them. We encountered each other at the June 1969 VFW parade.
I believe that the man in the foreground operated a shoe shine stand in the lobby of Duluth’s Medical Arts Building, where I went for my dental work as a kid. His small stature, his bemused expression, his simple dignity all give this image a plaintiveness that still touches me.
One weekend in late June Duluth hosted a VFW convention. Part of the festivities was a parade down Superior Street. That afternoon I got my first “professional” photo assignment. A man riding in the parade in a convertible saw my new used Leica and motioned me over. “Take a picture of me, make an eight-by-ten, send it to this address,” he said, handing me his card, “and I’ll pay you twenty bucks.” I did it and I got my twenty bucks—a good piece of change in those days. This woman and her sons were sitting on the curb not far away.
Simply a reflective woman waiting for someone just outside the old Ed Barbo clothing store. I still like the way she’s partly protected/hidden by the plate glass, which offers its own subtle reflectiveness.
Back in the 1960s, Duluth still had a bowery, down below Superior Street. Old, unattached men lived there—retired railroad men, sailors, lumberjacks. They would while away their days ambling around, sitting on bus benches without taking buses, strolling in and out of the many bars. As I was grabbing a shot of one of them, serendipity intervened. The second man walked unexpectedly into the frame.
In the summer of 1971, there was a massive Duluth all-school reunion. That is, every annual class of every high school that cared to put on a reunion event could. Margaret here was all gussied up for the event. Years later, when I had a show at the Tweed Museum, her daughter contacted me. I sent her a print of the image.
My theory is that his back is giving him trouble. He’s loaded up what needs loading. Rather than bend over and around the side of his truck, he uses a broom to operate the lift control. Very sensible and efficient.
Not every item of street photography is candid. Sometimes street photography becomes street portraiture. Thus it was in this case. This fellow was a janitor working downtown, clearing out a fresh snowfall. He kindly let me shoot him. He was not in the least self-conscious, but neither was he particularly interested in the process—which I think comes through here.
Having been inspired by Cartier-Bresson’s concept of the “decisive moment,” I started my street photography efforts with that instinctual style of shooting in mind. Who knows why I saw this particular shot, but I did. And I caught it just right, IMHO, decisively. I forget if the grade was proceeding up from Superior St. or First St.
The answer is First street. Source: I work on that block.
This is a shot from the June 1969 VFW parade. The man and two girls—I have no idea if they were related—were munching on popcorn under the marquee of the old Granada Theater. It was my good fortune that they were munching in unison.
I spotted this girl standing in the door of a department store, enjoying her snack. I took a few shots and she knew it, but didn’t mind, as long as she got all the popcorn. I suspect nowadays that if you took a picture of a child in these circumstances, you’d get reported to the police. But those days seemed more innocent.
He was a retired gentleman who spent his days in the old Duluth public library, shuffling through stacks of papers that he brought with him. I imagine he needed to keep a routine of some kind. I got to know him because he saw that I was interested in opera recordings. One day he noticed that I had picked up a version of Carmen. “Carmen is a fine opera,” he told me, “but if you really want to know Bizet, you have to listen to Pearl Fishers.” When I finally printed this negative several years later, it struck me that he looked the part of an angel, with wings and all.
Having just bought a lightly used Nikon FTn (with an 85mm lens that I still have) from my old high school photography teacher, I decided one day to set out for the Douglas County Fair in Superior. It was a rich shooting environment and this was one of my favorites—a pensive boy standing by one of the earlier “bouncy houses.”
So how did I end up organizing an exhibition of nearly fifty-year-old Duluth street photographs?
The story really starts about a year earlier when I was asked if I wanted to manage the annual photography exhibition for the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival.
In years previous, the photo show done in a free form manner where everyone participating in it took care of their own printing and framing. I know a lot of photographers didn't enjoy having to deal with framing, so I thought I'd try something different in 2015.
I was sitting on a large pile of frames that I've accumulated over the years from doing my own exhibitions. So for the 2015 photo show, I had everyone participating in it just deliver me a digital file. Then I handled printing and framing them all using the equipment I have at home.
The show that year ended up looking great since everything was framed very uniformly. The feedback I receive from the photographers was also good as they liked just not having to deal with printing and framing.
Now, I personally find framing to be a big deterrent towards the number of shows I'll submit my own work for. When a show is further away then I'm comfortable with driving to deliver the piece, the cost to be on display for a month or two starts to add up quick.
Using this model where all that needed to be delivered was a digital file or film had me thinking about organizing similar group shows in the future from artists not located only in Duluth. It was just sort of a back burner thought and not something I was actively looking to set up.
Then one day in the fall of 2015 I just happenstance typed Duluth Street Photography into Google to pass some time. Then there, in the image results, was this one black & white photo from Duluth that appeared to be taken decades ago.
I opened the blog post that the image originated from and did some more preliminary searching for the photographer's other work. Found a few other small images, and they all looked promising. As if the photographs were taken by someone who had studied contemporary street photography of the 1960s.
I started thinking about my idea of doing a minimal work for the photographer exhibition and figured these photographs might be a good fit for a trial run of using the model with a single artist.
I sent an e-mail detailing the idea. And as you can guess, he agreed to the experiment.
I ended up doing the prints for the D.R. Martin show from ground zero. He drove to Duluth one spring day to hand deliver the negatives for the show. While he and his wife revisited Duluth, I spent the day rapidly scanning each frame. From there I did all the post-processing and printing of the images.
I always get a strange unpleasant feeling when trying to market my own photography, and always really appreciate others who believe in my work enough to be advocates and market it around for me. To able to go through the routine to push someone else's brand was in a way, a lot more relaxing. Even though it was a lot of work, but it was pretty satisfying.
I'm not entirely sure if I'll be doing something like this again in the near future. Although I do have a short list of artists I've seen on the Internet that I am considering approaching if I find time to do this again.
I was hanging the show and had maybe a quarter of the prints on the wall so far when a woman who happened to be in the building at the same time stopped and looked.
"Oh my God. There are from Duluth? They remind me of when I was a little girl. I feel like I might cry."
A pretty nice first response if I do say.
Film vs. Digital? How about Film & Digital!
One of the things I've always found interesting about film photography is that the technology to make better prints from a piece of film can always keep improving.
This idea reared its head while working with the film for Granada Theater. The negative itself was a little thin. Thin in photographic terms meaning that the negative was a little bit underexposed. This makes subtle details get lost in the shadows, and printing with ample amount of contrast can get difficult.
Mr. Martin had told me that this was always a problem negative that he was never able to get a good print from in a traditional darkroom.
Well, here we are decades after it was developed, and my modern digital film scanner was able to rip all the detail out of the thin parts of the negative. So finally, in 2016, thanks to advances in digital technology, this photograph was able to finally have a life!