More than 2,400 miles away, there’s a cultural celebration going on and one Oak Park artist is in the middle of it. It’s the silver sister cities anniversary of Chicago and Hamburg, Germany, and the occasion is being marked with a black-and-white photography exhibit, “Streets, Alleys and other Observations, Chicago” by Allen Bourgeois.
The exhibit, which ends May 31, is at Amerikazentrum Hamburg (America Center Hamburg), “a bi-national, cultural institution that supports German-American educational and cultural exchanges,” and is supported in part by the U.S. Embassy.
While Bourgeois’ professional photography career focuses on commercial and advertising subject matter, which is a collaborative process, the art exhibit features work “that is all mine,” he said.
“The professional work is what feeds the family and my personal work feeds my soul,” said Bourgeois, who has lived in Oak Park for more than 20 years, but was drawn to photos much earlier in life.
“I really got seriously interested in photography when I was in the Marines and bought my first serious camera in Okinawa in 1975,” Bourgeois recalled. “Uncle Sam owed me four years of college, so I studied photography and art.” He graduated in 1986.
While Bourgeois does not like the terminology “street photography,” he said he is sometimes guilty of practicing it. He tends to seek out his images in busy places because there is more going on, and he looks in places where “visual relationships can most likely take place,” he said.
This can be seen in his exhibit photo of a couple in an embrace taking a selfie, while oblivious to a man, just steps away, folded over, homeless “due to family and job loss” according to his cardboard sign, cup set before him with only a few coins inside.
Bourgeois said he loves the unplanned nature of street work and the uncertainty and spontaneity of it, in contrast to his professional work.
“I make a right turn and there is nothing there. I make a left turn and there are photographs everywhere,” he said. “Some days I go out and I come back without even taking one photograph. Other days are ripe with visual opportunities.”
According to Bourgeois, pioneering street photographer Henri Cartier Bresson said this type of work requires a “developed instinct.”
“To me, that means the ability to see in a fraction of a second the moment all the visual elements come together and then having the skill to capture that moment,” Bourgeois said. “I find that ability to find, see and capture clarity in chaos frustrating and so exciting at the same time. It is all of that uncertainty that keeps me going back out on the streets.”