underexposed

interviews, news and photographic musings...
through the eyes of fine art photographer & journalist susan burnstine

In Focus: Bill Vaccaro

Chicago based photographer Bill Vaccaro and I became friends via online forums around eight or so years ago and we’ve kept in touch ever since. Bill has worked with toy and conventional cameras over the years and he has a deep passion for a variety of alternative processes.

Most recently, Bill released a color documentary series about firework venues entitled Boomtown. Here’s an excerpt from a recent chat we had about his work.

SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

BILL VACCARO: As a child, I would love going through the family snapshots that my parents and relatives took. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the financial means to get my own camera until I started college and I bought my first 35mm SLR camera. Over the years, I sort of mucked around on and off with 35mm black-and-white street and landscape photography. I had a darkroom or access to one most years and taught myself to develop film and make my own prints. It was a hobby for me but an enjoyable one. 

It wasn’t really until 2004 that I started to get really serious about it as a means of expression. I discovered the photoblogging community and created my own site, which I called Out of Contxt where I posted my photos, sometimes every day. Then a certain photographer from L.A. visited my blog and suggested that I play around with toy cameras. That would be you. From there, I discovered the joys of blur and selective focus. Since then I’ve experimented with homemade lenses and generally settled on medium format photography. With few exceptions, it’s all been one big, happy blur. 

I’ve managed to get my work seen and be in some juried and curated shows. Eight years later, I’m still plugging along. Not bad for someone who’s self taught and has only taken two workshops in his lifetime. Thank Buddha for those Ansel Adams and Time-Life books!

SB: What was the impetus for your latest series Boomtown?

BV: I’ve always been fascinated with fireworks every since I was a boy. I have very strong memories of being taken to the local park for the July 4 celebrations. When I was in sixth grade, I had a friend who managed to get his hands on some cherry bombs and M80s. Pretty powerful stuff for kids to be playing around with. We went through the neighborhood, set them off and then running like hell to avoid getting picked up by the police or, worse, our parents. We never got caught and, fortunately, nobody lost any digits either. 

The project gelled during the summer of 2010 while I was on a road trip through the South to continue work on the Jesus on the Mainline series. The trip started shortly before Independence Day and that’s when I started seeing all the temporary fireworks stands and tents. As the trip continued, it dawned on me that this would make an interesting project combining my love of fireworks with the quirkiness of the stands, tents and stores.

SB: Can you tell me a bit about the road trips that you took for this series and what areas you visited?

BV: I’ve taken two road trips so far. The first one was to northern Indiana in the fall of 2010. Fireworks are illegal in Illinois so Chicagoans get their fix by driving to Indiana where there are dozens of stores right across the state line. In some cases, like Uncle Dan’s in Hammond, they’re literally 100 feet away from the Chicago city border. Besides Hammond, I checked out stores in Gary, Merrillville, Valparaiso, and Portage. I even found several small mom-and-pop grocery stores in Howe, a small town about an hour past South Bend, that have separate rooms in the back devoted exclusively to fireworks. Pick up your bread, milk and bottle rockets. How’s that for one stop shopping?

Late last June; I went on a 12 state, 3500+-mile road trip with my then 18-year-old son who also shares his dad’s pyrotechnic interests. As I like to say, I shot while Chris bought. Our journey took us through the Midwest east of the Mississippi, the mid-South states, the Carolinas and then up through Virginia, West Virginia and the Maryland panhandle into Pennsylvania. We ended the road trip by spending Independence Day in State College where we saw, or should I say experienced, the massive annual volunteer fireworks show on the campus of Penn State.

SB: Is the series ongoing or complete? If ongoing, do you foresee any new directions for this project?

BV: Not quite but close. I’m heading west for a couple of weeks in mid June to explore Missouri and possibility a few neighboring states before I finally put the series to bed. My friend and fellow photographer Ellen Jantzen has been on my case get down to the St. Louis area and visit. According to her, there are numerous temporary fireworks stands that pop up around that time of the year. 

I also intend to spend the night of July 4 back home in Chicago. My home is less than three blocks away from a local north side beach right off Lake Michigan. On Independence Day, the place swarms with locals who detonate all the fireworks that they bought in Indiana and is a great photographic opportunity. The police are there but don’t really interfere that night. I’m also going to try to enlist Chris and some of his friends as well.

I don’t expect to do anything different with the project although I’d love to get more people shots to round out the usual architectural imagery. I had a hard time with that during last year’s road trip. While we met a lot of interesting people, most were reluctant to have their photograph taken for any number of reasons. I think most of it has to do with trust and relationships, as well as the nature of their jobs. And it’s really hard to build that trust when you’re just popping in unannounced, spending an hour or even less at a location, and then hopping in the car to go to the next spot. My plan for this coming year is to bring a small portfolio of images that I’ve already taken and see if that helps break the ice.

SB: It seems your creative inspiration often lies in road trips. Your previous series Jesus Is On The Mainline and Roadside Attractions were also “driven” by the road. Can you talk a bit about this essential element of your process?

BV: I’ve always loved roads trips since I was a kid, mainly because there were so few of them. My parents rarely owned a car, so the trips were always memorable to me. For example, there was the trip to Gettysburg and Washington, DC when I was ten where I can still visualize my first glimpse of the U.S. Capitol Building from the back seat. Another was to visit my cousin’s family farm in West Virginia where I learned to actually milk a cow. So, in some ways, I’m kind of making up for lost time. But then, sometimes, you sometimes just need to go where the visual candy is. And America has lots and lots of visual candy.

SB: Jesus Is On The Mainline teeters on the edges of humor, satire and also exercising your own demons and is one of your most personal bodies of work. Can you discuss the impetus for this series, the years it was shot and how it developed, changed or found its groove as you progressed with the work?

BV: As my wife likes to say, I’m a recovering Catholic. I grew up in a tight knit enclave of devout Italian-American Catholics on the lower west side of Buffalo, NY. I still remember the crucifixes over every bed, the dinners my aunt would make every year for the Feast of St. Joseph, the holy water font that was installed in my grandmother’s apartment so she could say her rosaries and novenas and, of course, the Sunday masses at our nearby parish church. As I grew older, I began to question my faith. By the time I turned 18, I was through with the Church. However, it never stopped my fascination with and respect for the true believers, especially those who wore their faith on their sleeve.

Like most of my projects, the Jesus series sort of happened accidentally. I was attending the Taste of Chicago in 2005 when I took a toy camera photograph of an evangelist who was proselytizing the attendees. He was handing out coins with a biblical quote and wearing a sandwich board that said “Prepare To Meet Thy God.” I still have that coin. The following spring, my family and I hopped into the car during my son’s spring break and drove down I-55 to post-Katrina New Orleans. New Orleans has always been one of my favorite cities in the whole world and I figured that we could help the local economy in our own way by spending a few days there. Both coming and going, we saw a lot of billboards, signs and trinity crosses off the sides of the interstate. I then remembered the evangelist photograph and that was when I began serious work on the project, first locally, then regionally. 

When I attended the Photolucida portfolio reviews in 2009, I showed what I had to Tony Bannon, director of the George Eastman House and fellow Buffalonian. Tony really liked the work in progress but said to me, “You know, this isn’t going to be truly finished until you go to the South.” So, I took his advice and headed out on a 3000+-mile road trip through the back roads of the Deep South looking for Jesus the following summer with my very, very patient wife. It was a pretty amazing journey.

SB: Recently, you’ve been focusing more on straight documentary versus your previous focus on alternative methods. Can you talk about that transition and do you feel there has been a greater shift in your work other than process or technique?

BV: The Boomtown series is sort of a temporary detour from my usual process and a subject that I had to get out of my system before I could move back to my usual processes. I’m really a black-and-white kind of guy. While I’ve dabbled in color here and there in my early work, it never really grabbed hold of me the way shades of grey have all these years. But shooting fireworks stores screams for outrageously vivid color, sharp focus and a documentary style of composition. It been challenging because I had to deal with technical issues I never had to worry about before, especially color balance issues in places whose interiors are illuminated by pretty bad fluorescent lighting. While it meant a temporary abandonment of my usual black-and-white, selective focus style of shooting, I’ve still tried to convey a sense of self in the work.

Boomtown is a time sensitive project because the temporary stands don’t appear until sometime in June. So while I’m waiting, I’m starting to work with handmade processes. I’ve been teaching myself how to use the ziatype printing process that was developed by Dick Sullivan in the mid-1990s. The results are comparable to traditional palladium printing except that chemical development is not required like palladium. It is a printout process in that the development takes place while the print is exposed to UV light. I also took a weeklong workshop with the amazing Jill Enfield at the Maine Media Workshops to learn wet plate collodion last August. My plan is to combine the two while still continuing to work with medium format black-and-white film photography.

SB: If you could summarize all of your work over the past years in a phrase or in a few words, what would that phrase be?

BV: As American as homemade apple pie, worms and all.

SB: What are you working on now?

BV: Besides finishing up the Boomtown series this June, I’ve begun work on two personal series that combine wet plate and other alternative processes. And while I’m in St. Louis this summer, I’ll keep working on a long-term project that I’ve been doing on the Gateway Arch that is shot almost exclusively with toy cameras.

To see more of Bill’s work, pop over to his website

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