James Bell captures the essence of his home town Chicago while reflecting on the unfamiliarity of St Andrews.
Moving to St. Andrews produces strange anxiety. Or maybe I should say that as a photographer, it produces stranger anxiety. But I’ll come back to that later.
In my home town of Chicago, I know the city — or at least many parts of it. Even though Chicago is sprawling and made up of distinct neighbourhoods with deep cultural roots and ever nascent trends, I generally feel that I know it well. Through living and working and playing there over the last decade, I can see past the initial bright lights of the Windy City and acknowledge the more acute characteristics that make it a home rather than just a great place.
In my photography of Chicago, I’ve tried to capture the raw, jarring excitement of the places locals love. Sure — in a city as varied and personal as Chicago, who am I to say that my vision of Chicago is in its essence “Chicago”? But having lived in three different neighbourhoods, and having explored many more, I at least have a chance at framing something that matters to people.
And by people, I don’t mean the tourists (and no offence if you have ever been a visitor there: Chicago is an amazing holiday destination with its museums and lakefront and shopping and theatres). But by people, I mean the ones that can recognise the corner pub by the block print on the faded sign, the ones who can name the local music venue by the rumbling sound of the “L” train overhead.
But I don’t want to give people pictures that just regurgitate part of their Chicago. My hope is that my prints show the world that Chicagoans are a part of and know… but show it slightly left of centre.
Taking cues from my two young daughters, I play with perspective to remind viewers of what they know while revealing the details they never considered; I want someone to be drawn to my photos by recognition, but held to my photos by curiosity.
Maybe it’s showing a normally busy street when it is quiet and vacant. Or maybe it’s moving back to show people what a summer festival looks like from outside the crowd. Or maybe it’s just showing a person what they look like when they are mesmerised by a museum exhibit. While Chicago is an amazing place for people to go, part of what makes it amazing are the people who are there already.
So back to my initial statement: walking around St Andrews gives me stranger anxiety as a photographer — not anxiety that is somehow greater than I had before, but anxiety at being a stranger in my hometown for the next year. I am in awe of St Andrews — the history, the people, the institutions — everything that is caught inside the tiny “bubble” (bigger on the inside, isn’t it Doctor?). When I look at the cathedral or Market Street or Aikman’s, I see images that belong on postcards… and already are on postcards. LOTS of them.
And that’s just it: those postcards give me the anxious feeling. If I want my St Andrews photography to embody the mix of familiarity and newness that I feel my Chicago photography does — before I can shoot the St Andrews that I am already falling in love with — I have to get to know it better.
James E. Bell
James E. Bell is on a sabbatical from his secondary teaching position in the States and working on an MLitt in Shakespeare and Renaissance Culture at St. Andrews. Earlier this year, three of Bell’s photos were featured in the redesign of Pandora Internet Radio’s Chicago offices. Bell’s prints have been shown at several Chicago café’s and gallery spaces and his Youngbell Photography was selected by Google Chicago’s field marketing team as one of 200 Chicago organisations to support the creation of local content; the team felt Bell could “offer a beautiful view of Chicago.”
To see more of Bell’s prints, options abound:
Twitter and Instagram: @YoungbellPhoto