It is inconceivable that 71-year-old Fred Burkhart, one of the pillars of Chicago underground culture, isn’t described with the word “famed photographer” in front of his name. Rumor has it that he has just months to live, and Saturday, January 19th, is the opening of his first gallery show ever in an over 40-year career of photography.
It’d be one thing if his images were cookie-cutter or his photography a mere hobby. But Burkhart took photos of the society’s outsiders, and the clashes that develop along its fringes. To him, it doesn’t matter which side wins, as long as he saw it. There are police confronting hippies. The KKK and gay pride parades. The homeless. Even his images of children somehow manage to appear simultaneously innocent and gritty. The stories apparent in these 1,000 word memoirs are complicated, like Burkhart’s own, abandoned as a child and often homeless.
Two questions immediately arise: how did Fred Burkhart, who was a painter until a friend of his gave him a broken camera and told him to be a photographer, choose his subjects? And why did someone with so much talent never share his work on a larger scale?
Burkhart’s memoir is his art. According to the man himself, his subjects often reflected his emotions, and his similarly rootless living situation. “I don’t care who it is. I stay out of the religion and the politics. Everyone’s the same underneath,” Burkhart says about photographs of organizations like the KKK. “All of sudden, I was thrown up against people who were angry. I was angry. I spent years with drugs and alcohol. It’s the kind of changes I was going through in my own life. It’s not like I set out to do an art project, but it reflects who I am, and certain kinds of people show up.”
He says decisions about what he photographed never felt deliberate. “Photography is a collaboration, and sometimes it’s not on the surface. When you fall in love with someone, you know it, pow. You’re choosing each other, and there’s a certain trust there. When you photograph them, people hand you their image. We have our identity, that’s all we have on this earth, and we trust the photographer to hand it back intact.”
While his subjects were on society’s outskirts, their presence and historical relevance have only grown with passing years. The images never seem dated—they’re as fresh as a punch in the gut, with fabulous composition. They should be in the pages of all the history books, burned into our consciousness and (consciences) like advertisements. Burkhart wanted that too, and the reason he never had a gallery show before is simple, moving, and even charming: he was too busy making more art.
“I showed my work in my studios, which were public spaces, but never had a legitimate gallery show. Every time I thought of doing that, it seemed easier to just make more art...writing, painting, performances, photography. And deal with my problems. Some people might have used a psychiatrist, I used my work,” says Burkhart. “There’s a show now because other people are doing it for me. If I had any energy, I’d get out and do more art. But right now, my work is healing.”
It’s hard to wish a man with forty years to work more time—but, get to know Burkhart’s art and relevance while the man is still alive, and you’ll devoutly wish he gets that time. See his show.