By Dmitry Samarov
I met Noah Vaughn around 1991 at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, in figure-painting class. His artwork has always been about the urban environment — its transition, its transformation, its decay. Over the years, he’s moved from painting to photography, started documenting the city through screenshots from films and TV shows on his blog Chicago Screenshots, and has recently edged back into painting. I asked him to talk about his work and he was kind enough to do so here.
BELT: Is your attraction to industrial wreckage due in any part with being from Peoria (home of Caterpillar, etc.)?
Noah Vaughn: I’m sure growing up in Peoria had some influence on my imagery. The industrial areas that lined the Illinois River were the most visually interesting thing in what I thought of as a dull suburban cityscape. There was a coal-fired power plant that I could see from my house and my high school, and I thought of the smokestacks as kind of a landmark. There was always that sense of industry being present.
An even greater outside influence on my imagery was a summer job I had in college, working as an air-sampling technician at asbestos abatement sites. The job involved a lot of hanging around inside empty schools, vacant factories, half-vacant strip malls at night, and soon-to-be-demolished buildings. The work was boring and the pay was not great (plus, there was the asbestos) but I loved having the chance to poke around these normally off-limits places. I got a lot of visual inspiration from that job.
BELT: Can you talk about your transition from painting to photography? Was it primarily a practical choice, in terms of not wanting to haul an easel around on your bike?
Vaughn: When I graduated from art school, I was making paintings of cityscapes either directly from observation or from drawings done outside and then worked up in my studio. Getting a full-time job made this kind of work difficult since I had a lot less time to work during daylight hours. I started taking photos of places I wanted to paint, thinking I could use them for reference materials in the studio, but as it turned out I hated painting from photos. I wasn’t sure how to proceed with my paintings, but I had these photos that were kind of interesting, and since I wasn’t getting anywhere with the one thing why not experiment a little with the other? That is pretty much how I moved from painting to photography. And yes, since I don’t drive, transporting photo equipment by bike is a bit easier than carrying a French easel and wet painting.
BELT: Talk a bit about your day job, which I know you’ve had for nearly 20 years now, and its influence, if any, on your creative life.
Vaughn: I’ve worked for a law library maintenance service for 19 years, which is a lot longer than I ever imagined having this job when I answered the help wanted ad. (“Oh, I’ll just do this for a year or two, save up some money, then do something else…”) Basically, I go to 4-5 law firms a day and do basic library stuff for them — update books, process library mail, catalog materials, photocopy articles.
I could never imagine making any sort of income from my art, and a steady paycheck and health insurance are hard to give up. I work with paper books and libraries are slowly going digital; there was a while when I really worried about becoming obsolete, but the libraries I work at have cut back as much as they can and I managed to survive that, so I think my job is relatively safe for a few years. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing five years from now, which is something I worry about. I’m not sure that my skill set (or lack thereof) can be applied to other jobs, and most employers are not clamoring to hire 43-year-olds with lackluster resumes. I do not have a plan. I probably should come up with one.
I can’t imagine that the office environments I work in would ever influence my photos. My choice of subject matter — derelict buildings and cityscapes — is a kind of reaction against the sterile corporate spaces I spend so much time in. After a week in shiny downtown office buildings, spending a couple days wandering through industrial zones with a camera is a great way to unwind.
BELT: You seem to have been able to avoid the romanticizing “ruin porn” aspect of urban photography. Are there conscious choices involved in not fetishizing your subject matter?
Vaughn: The “ruin porn” problem is always in the back of my mind when I’m out shooting. I have no interest in making photos that are about the aesthetics of decay — peeling paint and rust and crumbling bricks, the whole “romance of ruins” thing, which just seems kind of boring and pointless to me. I just try to make a straightforward document of whatever it is I’m looking at. No dramatic lighting or weird wide-angle camera-lens tricks. I also try to find ways to inject some humor or visual quirkiness into my images. It doesn’t happen often, but good things happen when it does.
BELT: I love Chicago Screenshots and I know I’m not alone. Can you tell me what inspired it, how much time you devote to it (seems like it’d be really labor-intensive), and whether you see it complementing, conflicting with, or otherwise impacting your own photography?
Vaughn: The screenshot blog comes from my interest in archival photos of Chicago architecture. One of my biggest internet time-sucks is Googling for older images of Chicago street images, especially for scenes of places that no longer exist or have radically changed. Saving images from Chicago movies was just part of that same impulse. I started making screenshots from movies that I had some connection to, like The Package — I used to live in a house that was featured in the movie — or Running Scared, the movie that made me want to move to Chicago (don’t ask). I occasionally posted these images to my flickr page where they got a lot of interesting feedback, so obviously I wasn’t the only one interested in this sort of thing. I started the blog just to have a separate place to present these images — I wasn’t planning on updating it regularly, but now I’m a bit obsessive with the project. It’s been interesting to see how different filmmakers depict Chicago, especially the parts that are not the downtown tourist attractions.
The blog isn’t THAT labor-intensive — it’s really just a Sunday night hobby. Pausing a movie every few minutes to get a screenshot can be tiresome and time-consuming, and if the movie is bad the project can be a real chore. The Monitors had some great Chicago images, but the story was so dumb that I turned the sound off and fast-forwarded through most of the film. The good movies take more time because I actually end up watching them before I go back and pick images to use. Out of all of the images I get from a movie, I probably post half of them on the blog.
I do see Chicago Screenshots as being loosely related to my overall art practice. Part of the reason I take the photos I do is to have a document of what the city looks like, and the screenshot blog is another way to archive images of Chicago street life. I don’t think the screenshots resemble my own photos, though I suppose the images I choose to save show my photographic biases. A lot of images I save don’t get posted — they may have some architectural/cultural significance, but as still photos they don’t work for me. And the blog has started to influence my own photo ideas: after seeing so many different film images of the Loop, I’ve started thinking about making photos of downtown myself, something I really haven’t been interested in doing before. Maybe I’ll re-explore some old film locations, Running Scared Redux or something like that.
BELT: Talk about what makes a good Chicago Screenshot movie (as opposed to just a good movie).
Vaughn: Chicago Screenshots is more of an architecture and cityscape photography blog than a movie blog, so I’m more concerned with images and locations in the film than I am with the actual movie, which is for the best because many of the films I use are pretty bad. (“Shot in Chicago” often does not equal “good.”) I tend to favor action and crime dramas because they have interesting locations (back alley drug deals, shoot-outs in derelict industrial zones, fist fights on the top of CTA trains, etc. …) The best movies, at least for my purposes, were shot in the late 70’s to late 80’s, when downtown was going through many changes. Most of “Modern Chicago” had been built (Marina City, IBM Building, Thompson Center) but much of “Old Chicago” (Block 37, the Ogden Avenue Viaduct, old Maxwell Street, and various riverfront warehouses) had yet to be demolished. Movies like Child’s Play, Raw Deal, Code of Silence, and The Fury may not be great films, but they are great documents of Chicago’s changing cityscape, even if the changes are only visible in the background.
BELT: Do you ever think about your interest in documenting demolition sites in psychological or sociological terms? Or is it solely a way of marking the changes in our urban landscape?
Vaughn: While I’m not a strict documentarian (what I do is probably akin to “creative non-fiction”), when I’m photographing demolition sites I’m mainly just interested in showing change in the city landscape. I am not a sociologist and I don’t have any training in urban studies, but I spend enough time wandering so-called “bad neighborhoods” and looking at former factory sites (that are now vacant, so: no jobs and thus the surrounding “bad neighborhood”) that I can’t help but think about all of the issues that go along with photographing the places I do. I’m not sure how much photography alone can really address those issues, though — it can point at things and say “look at this,” but there also needs to be writing, discussion, etc.
BELT: You’ve had some chances to exhibit your photos recently. How has having to print them (rather than just posting them online) changed how you go about your work? Have you enjoyed the shows/feedback/interaction with the art world?
Vaughn: I once joked on Twitter that “making large prints of your photos is a great way to find out how shitty they are.” It’s true, though — a printed photo feels “finished,” and of course technical issues that aren’t apparent in a 1000px-wide jpeg become all-too-obvious in a large print. (Since I started printing my work, I take much more care when shooting my photos, to avoid those all-too-obvious technical issues.) A photo isn’t “real” to me until I make a print. Even with a small 5×7, I can see the image much more objectively than I can if I’m just looking at a computer screen. I try to make 5×7 prints of all of my photos now, just so I can hold them and shuffle them around.
Seeing my work hanging in public alongside other work that looks much different than my own has also changed how I look at my own photos—it’s like I can finally see how my work looks to other people. So far, the feedback I’ve gotten has generally been positive. I hope to show more in the future.
BELT: How much of your whole process is riding around on your bike and finding things to shoot? Is that the most enjoyable part? Or is really capturing something you see more satisfying?
Vaughn: Exploring parts of the city by bicycle is a big part of my process — when I go out I usually have a vague idea of what I’m looking for, but I often get sidetracked and I end up shooting something completely unexpected. Sometimes it can be incredibly boring — hours of wandering around and not seeing anything of interest — but even so, going out to look for things to photograph is more productive than not going out to look. The photos are more than just a byproduct of exploring — if they were, they’d just be something like vacation photos — but wandering is essential to the work. I can’t imagine making photos any other way.
BELT: In your photos (especially of demolition sites) the buildings are overwhelmingly public ones—schools, churches, etc. Is this a matter of choice or opportunity? In other words, do the public buildings interest you specifically over, say, apartments?
Vaughn: The main reason I favor public (or corporate) buildings is that generally they’re just more interesting to me — they’re larger and often the spaces inside, and the relics that get left behind, are unusual and unexpected. These places often have a long history that’s visible even when the place has been vacant for years. Also, there might be the issue of familiarity: I see the inside of an apartment (my own) every day, but I don’t get inside churches or schools very often. Public buildings, even if they’re vacant and undergoing demolition, still seem “public” to me, and I don’t have any qualms about photographing them. Homes and apartments are private, though, and I’m not as comfortable with photographing them, even if they’re vacant (this seems like a silly distinction, and legally I know I’m way off base, but still…).
BELT: It’s always startling to me when a building I’m used to seeing is suddenly gone. The altered landscape that the gaping void leaves can be jarring. Have there been particular ones that you’ve shot whose absence have affected you more than others? Do ones closer to where you live or have lived make more of an impact on you personally?
Vaughn: When I first started photographing buildings, my favorite place to shoot was Washburne Trade School, a vacant trade school at 31st and Kedzie, a short bike ride from my apartment. The inside was amazing, but the outside was impressive too — it took up several city blocks, and the first time I saw it, it looked like a massive, 3-block-long brick wall looming over 31st Street, with a 6-story water tower at one end. The building was finally demolished in 2009 (after years of stop-and-go demolition and a large fire) and the looming structure at 31st and Kedzie was replaced by a vacant lot. The change was jarring — when such a large structure disappears, everything around it feels different, even the light. I’m still not used to not seeing the water tower when I bike past there. I probably took thousands of photos of Washburne — much of what I know about photography I learned by shooting there, so I have a sentimental attachment to the place. I still have to sort through everything I shot there. Whenever I look at my photos from then, I regret not taking more, or wish I had shot them differently. I find myself becoming attached to a lot of places, but I took the demolition of Washburne personally.
BELT: You told me recently that you’ve gone back to painting. How’s that going? Has it altered or affected how you photograph?
Vaughn: I love photography and it’s now a permanent part of my art-making practice, but I missed the physicality of painting. I haven’t put enough time and energy into painting to be anywhere close to serious, so I can’t say much about it yet other than I want to do more. I’m still interested in painting from observation, and I’ve been thinking about the difference between photography and painting. The two forms are often compared (especially when talking about representational painting), but I don’t think they have much to do with each other. Looking at something you are painting compared to looking at something you’re taking a photo of, it’s a completely different way of seeing. What makes for a good photo often wouldn’t work in a painting, and vice-versa.
BELT: Can you ever imagine doing what you do in a city other than Chicago?
Vaughn: Chicago is the only city I really know — I moved here from East Peoria in 1989 for college and haven’t left since — so it’s difficult for me to imagine living anywhere else. I do wonder what getting away from the street grid and flat landscape would do for my work. Living somewhere that I don’t know very well might force me to look for new subjects, or at least a new way to look at the type of subjects that I shoot. And it’s getting harder to find interesting places to shoot in Chicago, as gentrification and urban renewal wipe out a lot of potential subjects. But I always manage to find something to work with, so unless I’m given a compelling reason to move I’m staying put.
You can see much more of Noah Vaughn’s work here.
Dmitry Samarov was born in Moscow, USSR, in 1970 and immigrated to the US with his family in 1978. He got in trouble in 1st grade for doodling on his Lenin Red Star pin and hasn’t stopped doodling since. He graduated with a BFA in painting and printmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993 and upon graduation he promptly began driving a cab — first in Boston, then after a time, in Chicago — which eventually led to the publication of his illustrated memoirs Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab (University of Chicago Press, 2011) and Where To? A Hack Memoir (Curbside Splendor, 2014). He paints and writes in Chicago, Illinois. He no longer drives a cab.
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