News Column

Chicago Tribune Rick Kogan column

September 3, 2014

By Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune



Sept. 03--In January, photographer Fred Burkhart was preparing to die. He had been fighting prostate cancer for more than three years and a recent doctor's visit was bleak.

"They say maybe just a few weeks," he said.

He died on Saturday. He was 72 years old, and though he was known modestly for his photography, it was through that work, his encompassing philosophy and direct personality that he was a powerful influence on a couple of generations of Chicago artists in all fields.

His Facebook page filled with tributes and remembrances in the wake of his death, most of them echoing the sentiments of Ann Filmer, the director, choreographer and founder of the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn. She wrote, in part: "People you witnessed and captured in art adorn our walls .... You taught me about art and community -- the real deal here -- and love and grace. And seeing beauty in all things, even those things that frighten us. Things we cannot understand. You lived, loved, and made the world more beautiful than when you found it. Thank you dear Fred."

Burkhart never talked much about his early years but listening closely you would have learned that he was born in Cincinnati, was adopted into a middle-class home and twice spent time in reform schools. He arrived here in the early 1960s and spent his time living hand to mouth while visiting all the art museums and galleries that would allow him in.

He moved to New York in 1965 and, self-taught, starting painting. "I had a style similar to pop art," he said. "I was able to sell my stuff for as much as $1,000."

But he drifted into drugs and booze and away from New York and from painting. He wound up in California, where he first picked up a camera.

He sold off his paintings there for $10 "just so I could get a drink," he said. "(But) I began to realize how shallow my life had been as a painter. It kept me apart from the rest of the world. With photography I was face to face with people."

He and his lens were drawn to what most would consider outsiders but what he called "ordinary people who have set themselves up to be a minority."

"In every community I could find a kindred spirit," he said. "If you get past the politics, religion or sexual orientation, you will discover that the people in any group love their families and they love their ideas, even though they may hate everyone else."

He spent a great deal of time photographing the Ku Klux Klan until a member asked, "When are you going to join us, bro?"

"I'd join the Girl Scouts before I joined you clowns," Burkhart replied.

That led to a beating that, he said, "nearly left me dead in a hotel room."

He returned to Chicago, where he spent the last three decades. For a dozen of those years he created a salon-like atmosphere in the basement of his home on the North Side. No booze or drugs were allowed, and the space attracted an array of young creative types.

He did this, he said, because "I had no nurturing when I was young. I tried to put together my own family a couple times, and it didn't work out. So I opened my home/studio to fill a void: 'All you kids, come on in.'"

One of them was Bill Hillmann, a former Golden Gloves boxer, creator of the Windy City Story Slam, a live storytelling competition (windycitystoryslams.wordpress.com), and author of the recently published novel "The Old Neighborhood" (Curbside Splendor).

"I found Burkhart when I was an incommunicable tuff and had no venue to express myself," he said earlier this year. "I found a kindred spirit in Burkhart and a venue for my writing. He influenced every single one of my creative endeavors. He showed me a way to live through your art and to make a life in it. I owe Fred a tremendous debt .... (He was) an unknown world-class photographer, a guru, an original and a living legend."

Burkhart spent his last years living in the Uptown neighborhood, in one small art-and-photo-packed room of a building he shared with Jesus People, a Christian communal community.

"Taking pictures of the people I am living with is very different from my street photography," he said. "I have found a home with these people. So what I am creating is like a family scrapbook. People trust me. All they have is their identity, and they hand it to me, and they want me to hand it back with understanding."

In January he was give his first public exhibition: more than 50 black-and-white photos covering the walls at Alibi Fine Art, now at 4426 N. Ravenswood. He knew death was nearing but was downright buoyant as he said, "I do feel weak but my art is about healing. I see a full life."

Memorial services are in the works; information will appear on his Facebook page.

rkogan@tribune.com

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Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)


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