On a hot spring afternoon, in an unventilated attic in St. Louis, Stephen Saunders took to photography.
About to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Washington University, Saunders befriended a rich Japanese classmate who arrived to school carrying with a suitcase full of Nikon cameras.
The two spent the afternoon taking pictures of everything and anything that caught their lenses, and started developing the film that night. Twelve hours later, they were still in the dark room.
Some 45 years and countless photography shows later, Saunders’ work is part of the permanent collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Illinois State Museum and elsewhere.
The River Forest resident’s photographs have been featured in the Chicago Reader, ArtNews, Architecture Magazine and more. Saunders recently published his first book, “Silver Dust,” which is currently retailing for $65 on Amazon.com.
“I feel like the book, hopefully, is a chance for people who’ve known me for 32 years to find out something completely different about me,” he said. “Those that do know me as a photographer probably don’t understand the depth of the passion that I have for it. It’s not a hobby, it’s a passion.”
Saunders arrived in St. Louis from Arkansas, where he grew up with alcoholic and abusive parents. At age 16, he was sent to military academy “to get a little corrective programming” and learned discipline, a value he said was lacking in his family home.
After finishing his degree, Saunders found his way to Chicago to work at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, then-the largest architecture firm in the world. His boss went on to design Chicago’s Trump Tower and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. But Saunders felt unsatisfied.
“Architecture can be a bit of a grind. The creative side that you thought you were going to be doing, you don’t do a lot of it. You do a lot of technical stuff,” he said. “So I started just taking up photography on my own.”
He was in his 20s at the time, and a friend encouraged him to visit New York and show his work in a gallery. Saunders got in his putt-putt car and went, staying with the friend’s parents.
Every day the family would get in their station wagon and drive him into Manhattan, pointing Saunders in the direction he needed to go. He estimates he knocked on a hundred galleries during the trip, with most slamming their doors in his face.
“One or two were nice enough to have me sit down. They looked at my work and they were like, ‘Your work is beautiful, but you’re nobody and we can’t put you in a gallery until you get published,'” he said.
Saunders’ last day in the city he learned about an opportunity at Popular Photography, where editors would accept portfolios from anyone, review them overnight and then choose one to be featured in the magazine. Saunders dropped off his portfolio, deciding to spend an extra night in New York.
When he was ready, the couple he was staying with invited him to join them in Nantucket, where he could meet their neighbor, famed war journalist Water Cronkite. The next morning Saunders arrived at Popular Photography and heard the good news.
“I am finally getting published and I’m meeting Walter Cronkite. It was just like the stars aligned,” he said.
Saunders returned to Chicago on a high, convinced he could make a living from his photography. Over the next few years, he devoted himself to the practice, turning half of his small apartment into a dark room.
“I never went out to dinner. Every dime I had went into my film, my photography, my travels,” Saunders said. “I enjoyed it, but you get to a certain age you’re like, ‘You know, I think I need to grow up.'”
Rather than going back to a large architecture firm, Saunders co-founded his own practice in 1983. The business grew, Saunders got married, bought a home in River Forest and had children, with his twin daughters eventually both named valedictorians at their high school. Once or twice a year, he escaped for a few days to the Indiana Dunes and fell back into his photography.
When Saunders turned 65, he decided he was going to get published again. But first, he broke down and took his first formal class in the practice with John Sexton, who served as the last assistant to famed photographer Ansel Adams.
Saunders gained the last bit of knowledge he needed to push his work to the next level, and started spending more time with his camera. It was during this time he decided to turn his life’s work into a book.
He reached out to his favorite author, Alan Lightman, a physicist, poet and novelist who is the only person to hold two chairmanships at MIT. Saunders told Lightman how his work informed his photography.
After seeing Saunders’ work, Lightman agreed to write the forward to his book, describing Saunders’ photographs as “haunting,” “beautiful” and comparing them to “the infinity of time.”
“The world is always moving, always changing, it never stops. But we as human beings have a hard time perceiving that. The good thing about a camera is it can see the world in a way that we can’t,” Saunders said.
“It’s fascinating to me that the camera, more than drawing, more than painting, can take those two elements of space and time and do stuff with them in a way your eye can’t.”