When I enrolled at Columbia College Chicago in the fall of 1986, at seventeen, I befriended a vivacious and fiercely independent young woman named Jennifer that first semester, and she called me “Kitten.” Jennifer was a few years older than me and out on her own; I attributed her independence to the tragic loss of her mother when she was in her teens. She said I reminded her of the kittens born in her grandma’s closet when she was a girl, opening their eyes for the first time. She had seen and experienced much more in her young life than I had.
In my sophomore year, I took a special topics workshop. These were two-day experiences with well-known photographers, and the photographer for this class was Nan Goldin. She came into the room and seemed a bit of a mess, tired, and not interested in teaching. She announced we were going on a field trip to see an exhibition of her photographs. We were to meet at a gallery in River North in an hour. I had never been to an art gallery before and was excited about what that might mean.
Her Ballad of Sexual Dependency exhibition was to open at Catherine Edelman Gallery that night. It was a shock for my innocent eyes to see such irreverent imagery, dark and dramatic color photographs in the early 80s queer and party scenes of her and her friends. The images captured their lives and relationships rife with sexual exploits, drugs, alcohol, and physical abuse. As frightening as the works were to me, they drew me in. They were a document of energy and raw human moments in time, beautifully composed. The intimacy and trust between her and her subjects left an indelible mark. Not unlike the heart-shaped bruise on her friend’s thigh in one of the photos. The purpose of images like that and what an art gallery was for was not clear to me. But I was enthralled; the exhibition greatly influenced me; I wanted to document my life one day.
My studies focused on photojournalism and documentary photography. My time at Columbia introduced me to the work of many photographers who informed my aesthetic and inspired me, W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lang, Robert Frank, and contemporary photographers Annie Leibowitz and William Albert Allard. My teachers were also a significant influence, Stephen Marc, Jay Wolke, and Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist John H. White. But I was attracted to photography that rode a line between documentary and fine art, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, Richard Avedon, Duane Michaels, and Larry Clark. Work in that range revealed more questions than they answered, and the photographer’s presence was felt, which resonated with me.
I spent my final semester photographing truck drivers at the 76 Truck Stop off I94 in Calumet City, not far from my parent’s house, for my senior seminar class. Truck drivers were a fascination; I thought of them as modern-day cowboys. Their freedom out on the open road in their self-contained studio apartments was a lifestyle that appealed to me. I bought a CB for my car to communicate with truckers and gave myself the handle of “Cookie,” which was an unfortunate choice when drivers on the other end started asking if they could eat me. When I was not at school, I went to the truck stop to start conversations with drivers as they ate or did their laundry. I was not aware of a type of prostitute who frequented truck stops and was offended when the management accused me of being a “Lot Lizard.” I told them about my project, that I was a photojournalism student, and got the go-ahead to converse with the truckers.
The truck stop was like a city unto itself, with a restaurant, coin laundromat, and a store with food, snacks, and electronics. In the store was an artisan glassblower; he made little figurines of animals and cartoon characters out of the glass as truck drivers stood around and watched him work each night. They had showers, a big TV room, video games, and a bank of phone booths for calls home. Some of the truckers came through regularly, and we became friends. They would watch out from afar when I was doing interviews and vouched for me when I started taking photos of people. The project was my taste of life as a documentary photographer; I treated it as if I were on assignment for a big magazine and spent the semester capturing life at the truck stop. I learned how to talk to strangers and maneuver through uncomfortable conversations. I met many characters, but none of them were what I imagined; they didn’t seem independent and free. Many were bored, lonely, and missed their families and friends; others were divorced and living in their trucks. For the most part, they appreciated that someone was interested in what they did, opened up, and let me photograph them. When the semester was over, it was clear that I would need to get out on the road to tell the whole story.
Right out of school, I received my first rejection from the prestigious Eddie Adams workshop, where award-winning magazine editors and photojournalists worked with recent grads. The connections and experience of the workshop were said to jumpstart the careers of participants by five years. If I was going to be a photojournalist, I wanted that jumpstart. Many of my friends were getting jobs at local newspapers. I couldn’t imagine cutting my teeth in the industry by taking photos at high school football games or the ribbon cutting for the new car wash in town. I was only interested in taking pictures of things of interest to me.
That summer, I took a job at a gift shop that sold personalized keepsakes in the shopping mall by my house. It was a rough month; I had destroyed numerous ID bracelets and etched wine glasses and beer steins with crooked engravings and misspellings when I received a call that a truck driver was coming to town and could take me on a short run. A friend from Columbia made the connection for me with a friend of her son. Brian was a young truck driver, just a couple of years older than me, and was headed to Detroit to pick up a load. I called my job and told them I would not be coming back; I could have sworn I heard the manager say “Thank God” under his breath before wishing me good luck.
I hopped into Brian’s truck at my truck stop with my camera bag in hand, and we headed off. He was a new driver, and his reasons for truck driving were similar to my ideas about wanting to photograph the trucking lifestyle. I told him about my hopes for going on a long haul to experience the life of a truck driver. We used the ten-hour ride as a test run to see if we were compatible enough for an extended time together, and we got along. He had an outgoing personality and a good sense of humor and warned me that he played guitar and wrote songs in the evenings.
Weeks later, a twelve-day, long-haul trip arrived. It felt different from my days at the truck stop or the test run Brian and I had made earlier that month. I wasn’t exactly prepared for an extended trip; I brought only a couple of changes of clothes and a hundred dollars. The drone of the long drive set in quickly as we drove along the interstate on our way to Texas, and I found taking photos from the truck to be limiting. Unless the scene was unusual or the lighting just right, pictures out the windows were not what I wanted. Before we left, we decided that Brian would not be the main subject of the photos. His company did not know I was with him. I would photograph people we met on the road. When we got to our first truck stop, I was excited and ready to take some photos. We ate dinner in the restaurant, and Brian went back to the truck to sleep. As I walked around, it occurred to me that there were no familiar faces there, just strangers wondering who was the girl with the camera. I was uncomfortable and went to the TV room and watched the news before I hurried back to the truck in the dark.
I didn’t take any photos. That night, I slept in the cab’s passenger seat while Brian slept in his bed in the back, snoring and farting all night long. It was an excruciating trip; I became irritable about Brian’s lousy hygiene habits, and he made up a song about the bitchy girl with the camera, which he belted out any time I asked him to clean out the truck. My money dwindled because I kept washing my clothes and paying to take a shower every day. After the first week, I started taking birdbaths in the washrooms twice daily. Nothing was going the way I thought it would, no extraordinary moments with people, no great conversations, and almost no photographs taken. My sense of purpose disappeared, I was no longer a student doing a project for school, and I wasn’t on assignment for Life magazine. The wild world was intimidating, and my free time to take photos was late at night when weird shit happens to young women walking around an unfamiliar truck stop.
I got up early and went into a truck stop outside Tulsa one morning. It was quiet, and I saw a man opening the metal gate of a small barbershop. We struck up a conversation; he was a minister and a barber. The barber minister was a cool-looking guy, slight with a perfectly combed black pompadour and shiny black shoes, right out of the ’50s. He had his barbershop in the truck stop for several years and held services on Sunday mornings. As we talked, a transient fellow walked in and asked for a haircut. The barber told the guy, “I’ll cut your hair for free if you let this young lady take photos.” I sat back at first and listened to the two of them talk. The poor guy warned the barber that he had a metal plate in his head from an old accident. The barber took excellent care of him, shave, haircut, and facial. When they finished, he looked like a new man, and he thanked us both. I went to the truck and told Brian it was time for me to go home. He drove me to a bus station in East Saint Louis. I was broke and had barely eaten in days; he gave me twenty bucks to buy a bus ticket and something to eat.
When I returned from the road, I started working as a darkroom technician and photographer at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History. It was the perfect place for me to land. The assignments were interesting; we worked for all the various departments in the museum, photographing and printing specimens for Anthropology, Geology, Botany, and Zoology. It was quite an education to work with the foremost experts in their fields. Low on seniority, I spent most of my time relegated to the darkroom or doing photo research; photo assignments came later.
I had just started working at the museum when a friend of my dad’s, the Fire Chief in Dolton, approached me about becoming the photographer for the Fire Department. It was a low-paid position, but I would set up a darkroom and photograph fire scenes for evidence. It piqued my interest, I agreed to do it.
First, though, I needed to be trained and earn certification as a firefighter, which would take six to nine months. I enrolled in night classes with a bunch of other fire rookies, all young men, and learned about different types of hoses, fires, structures, and accelerants. For the most part, the other men were fine, but I could sense the testosterone filling up the room during class, and it made me nervous. A couple of them were irritated because I had been made a photo officer before even becoming a firefighter, and they gave me a hard time.
Six months into my schooling, we had a training session at an abandoned house in town on a hot August night. They filled the house with smoke, and we put on our equipment and SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus). We were sent in teams to find victims. It was terrifying; my partner and I discovered our victim in one of the second-floor bedrooms. One of the heaviest guys in the department was lying on the floor in the dark. My partner and I each picked up an end, and we shuffled over to the stairs. As we started down, the victim slipped from my hands and bumped down the stairs.
The following exercise was to ventilate a roof. In our gear, we went on the top with a chainsaw to cut a hole and let the air and smoke out. I did it, but I kept asking myself what the hell I was doing there.
While in training, I went back to Columbia one afternoon to visit friends and use the darkroom. I had a walkie-talkie phone radio the fire department gave the trainees; if a call came through, we were supposed to show up to observe and help. My friend Jno (John) sauntered onto the floor. I met him in the first weeks when I started college and had been a TA for his class one semester. He taught experimental photo techniques, and his work was photo-based conceptual art: intelligent, ironic, and wry. He looked like a cross between a dusty aging beatnik and a mad scientist. Jno was curious and brilliant, and I always felt a little stupid when I was around him, but we liked each other. I told him about working at the museum and the fire department. He got such a kick out of the thought of it. He made fun of my radio and asked if I had a red light on my car. Not long after that day, I quit the department. It wasn’t because of anything Jno said. It was not the right fit; I had no interest in hot and scary situations. Jno never let me live it down and took the opportunity to remind me of my firefighting days whenever I saw him over the next few decades.
Hustling to get more work, I built a darkroom in my parent’s basement to print, shot weddings and portraits of musicians, and small commercial jobs to supplement my museum pay. All the while, I photographed family, friends, and new people that came into my life. I tried to capture an intimacy I craved but didn’t exist yet for me.
Someone once asked me why I was taking the photos. I was taking them for me, collecting snippets of a life in transition. One of the guys I photographed was dating a woman who ran a bar in Northwest Indiana, and I asked her if I could show my photos in the bar; it was the first of a handful of times I exhibited my photos. She said yes, and I got to work editing, printing, matting, and framing 20 prints. It was the first show I ever installed. We had a small reception on a Saturday afternoon in October, and the photos would be up until New Year. I brought a friend to see the show one night in early December. We saw my photographs wrapped with Christmas gift wrap and ribbons on the walls when we walked in. I was outraged and went to talk to the owner. She didn’t care that I was upset. It was a bar, not a gallery, and it was time to decorate for Christmas. She thought it was a clever idea to wrap the photos like presents. After the New Year, I came back, unwrapped the photos, and brought them home.
I had just moved in with my boyfriend at the time, and we ordered new linoleum for the kitchen. The flooring company sent a friendly man named Dale to the house to install it. Like a magician, he efficiently laid the seamless flooring. Dale noticed my photos hanging around the house when he cleaned up and asked me to join an area artists’ group. Dale did digital artwork on his computer. I told him I didn’t consider myself an artist, but it would be fun to come to the group and possibly meet some creative friends in the area.
I attended a meeting of the artists’ group one evening. Dale greeted me and took me around to meet some of the artists. At 25, I was the youngest one in the room; the average age of the artists there was probably 55. They were a lovely bunch of people, and some of them I befriended and would learn were good, disciplined artists. It was a step above a Sunday painter’s group; some of them had more professional aspirations; they did art fairs and organized shows in the lobby of the art center and at local businesses.
Dale and I decided to have a two-person show in the art center’s lobby later that year. I learned the importance of promoting my exhibit and sent or gave postcards to everyone I knew. We had a big turnout at the opening reception, and John Cain, the executive director of the arts organization, introduced himself. He was impressed with all the people I knew and that the area artists had shown up to support me. I got more involved in the group and volunteered to assist Craig, the exhibit director, in installing exhibitions in the center’s big gallery.
One day when Craig and I were installing an exhibit, he told me he was quitting his job. I was surprised to hear the news. I thought, what could be more fun than working with artists every day and having what appeared to me to be a prestigious position? He had been offered another job out of state. He said, “You should apply for the position, Linda.” I told him I wasn’t qualified; I had zero art knowledge or experience putting together exhibitions. He encouraged me, and I applied.
A whole new world opened for me when I started working at the art center, and I immersed myself in the position. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I stopped taking photographs; it happened as the job became more involved and creatively satisfying. I enjoyed organizing exhibitions and working with artists. Some were difficult to get along with, but most were good people, and I soaked up my time with them. My vigorous exhibition schedule and modest budget limited what I could do for the artists, and I wanted to do so much more.
John was a good mentor; he pushed me to explore different areas of art, including his passion for outsider art, works made by untrained or naïve artists outside of the “art world.”
This exposure influenced my democratic views about art; I had no instructors closing off my mind to any areas of the great big art world. I could do that myself if I chose. During my time at Northern Indiana Arts Association, I organized 70 solo and group exhibitions and programs of local, national, and international artists. My confidence and taste blossomed during those five years, culminating when I organized my last exhibit—the historical regathering of Chicago Imagist exhibitions from the Hyde Park Art Center in the late 1960s. Jumpin’ Backflash: Original Imagist Artwork, 1966 – 1969, showed at Northern Indiana Arts Association in the fall of 1999 and traveled to the Chicago Cultural Center in 2000.
The day I met Tom and saw his work for the first time was much like my first time at a gallery to see the Nan Goldin exhibition. It was an illuminating experience that inspired me. Their work explored relationships and humanistic concerns via drama, love, and color. When I started working with Tom, my life took the ultimate turn towards self-expression. I was able to tailor my work and life towards my natural inclinations and strengths. Wrangling Tom and his artwork has been my greatest passion; my photography is now completely but casually intertwined in my life, free of categories. The title and pressure of being a “photographer” have vanished, and I take photographs every day.
Being self-employed was a practical decision based on two components of my personality. 1.) I didn’t like having a “job.” Working for someone else meant waking up each morning and being told what to do—giving them the best years of my life for a paycheck. I don’t like to be told what to do. And 2.) I value happiness and freedom over money, fame, or anything else. People have thought that I take the back seat to Tom, and that I must have unanswered goals. But the truth is, I get to do what I want to do every day. I don’t relish the spotlight and prefer working in the background, making things happen. The more tedious administrative work grounds me, especially when things are up in the air, which they often are. The way we carved our life out was more pleasing to me than the alternative. Instinctively I seek the path of least resistance and avoid conflict and tension; this serves me well. It’s challenging to be an artist, and I believe that the contributions of artists are necessary and worthwhile for civilization. My experience, interests, and abilities are ideally suited to working with Tom as his partner. Many of our artist friends have told me, “Every artist needs a Linda!” and I agree.
It is happenstance that what I desired in life was what Tom had to offer, partnership, shared purpose, family, love, and a life dedicated to learning about and living with art. Tom’s expansive knowledge and admiration for thousands of artists and their work were contagious. He introduced me to new artists every day as we explored and grew his library. There are countless artists whose work I think about and revisit over and over. Artists like Otto Dix, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cadmus, Alice Neel, Faith Ringgold, David Hockney, Gerhardt Richter, Kara Walker, and Nikki De Saint Phalle, to name just a few. I see plenty of new contemporary art on social media, but its preponderance makes it confusing to analyze. I can’t tell if it’s fully cooked and made with the intentions and sincerity that, for me, makes strong work. The distortions of a social media audience, slick techniques, bright colors, and lack of context keep me scrolling past without wondering who these makers are or what they are trying to communicate. Seeing art in person is always the best way to view it.
Photography came back to me almost on day one with Tom. Right in front of me, I enthusiastically began to document my life. It took a long time, but my past exploits, unfinished projects, and failures brought me closer to finding what I wanted and that I could take important photographs without any constraints. My outlet has been to make tens of thousands of photos of the loves of my life, watching Neil grow up, Tom doing his work, our artists, family and friends, and the things we’ve done, and time spent together. I have shared some of the images on social media and exhibited them once, but they are just for me now.