Chicago Magazine’s director of photography shares the value of the introspective photos featured in Common Ground, by Pulitzer Prize-winning San Francisco Chronicle photographer Scott Strazzante contrasting the lives of an aging couple raising cattle and young suburban parents raising four children, revealing more similarities than just the land.
Diane Moca: Welcome to Talking Cities from TalkLab. I'm Diane Moca, and I'm with Michael Zajakowski, and he is the director of photography for Chicago Magazine. And he is also a friend of the publisher of this wonderful photo book, Common Ground. And you said you have known Scott since he was a baby. Was that a joke or is that real? Mike Zajakowski: That was a joke. We were both young at the time. We started out at the same newspaper in different offices, but I've known Scott ever since he started. I've been there for his whole career in one way or another, either working together at the Chicago Tribune or at the Daily Cali MET, or just in various places. We've been friends forever, all of our professional lives. Diane Moca: And this wonderful book that he published, he's had different photos from this book out in different newspapers over the years, but never all collected like this at once. Mike Zajakowski: We ran a story in the Chicago Tribune magazine. So in the early 2000s, I was the photo editor for the Chicago Tribune magazine, and we did a nice feature story on Scott's work, and I was really proud of that work. So I have a copy somewhere. I should've thought to bring it, but I don't have it. But I was really proud of that work and happy to have Scott's work in the magazine. Maybe not many people know this, but Scott owns the work. He owns the copyright to the work, which is an extremely important aspect of the work. So that's kind of a lesson for young photographers to pay attention to the ownership rights that you either have or are giving away when you're working. This is Scott's. This is Scott's baby. So it's professional. Diane Moca: So he had the foresight, after he went out on that story and realized, "I want to follow these people on this farm." This book is of photographs of people on a farm that eventually ends up getting sold and turned into a subdivision. And it juxtaposes the photos that he took for years of the people on the farm and these hardworking people that ended up reluctantly selling. And then the family, so grateful to have this wonderful suburban home on the same plot of land and the common ground between not just where they live, but the way they live, and how much they care about their family. Mike Zajakowski: Right. It's a perfect title. And there's so many really wonderful things about the project and about the book because the similarities in what was going on on the farm and in the subdivision just kind of appeared to Scott after he had spent so much time working on the farm and then working with the Grabenhofer family. All of these pictures started looking familiar, and he started taking pictures that, "Wait, this reminds me of this picture. Let me go back and get this and see what these look like together." And then he just started building on that. And it's really amazing. I mean, each of these stories on their own, you can parse this story out in different ways, but the farm story with the Cagwin's and the suburban story with the Grabenhofer's are so unique and they're wonderful stories on their own. And when you mesh them, there's no other story like it. It's just amazing. Diane Moca: And so you've known Scott all this time. Did you hear from him as this project was evolving? And he didn't realize in the beginning that he was going to do this juxtaposition in a book. What was your impression as someone from the outside as this was evolving in his mind and it started to take shape? Mike Zajakowski: Well, the first impression was the story that he was doing with the Cagwin's. And that in itself is a story that's happened literally a million times over in this country and in other countries, where farms become something else and families kind of recede and the land becomes something else. It happens over and over and over again. And this is a really unique, intimate portrait of this family, the Cagwin's that are at the end of the road as far as their land and their property and their lifestyle, and the lifestyles of millions of people that came before them. So this is a really historic thing. We love the Old West and we love the homesteaders and all that stuff. Here it is in this book. This is what happens to people and this is what's happened to our land, and it's happening out there now. Lots of former farm land is still being turned into subdivisions or industrial parks or whatever, but just that in and of itself is a wonderful story. But then to turn around and keep going on the story and to find new life in it by seeing these same themes in different ways with kids and jump ropes and bikes, it's just really amazing. It's a really unique project. Diane Moca: And what does it mean to you as a director of photography to see this many people come out to an event like this to admire and talk about photos that tell a story? A picture tells a thousand words, right? Mike Zajakowski: You're a reporter and I love what you do, but I got to tell you, people love photography. People love photography. Diane Moca: Well, look at the popularity of Instagram, right? It's based on that. Mike Zajakowski: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So I'm never surprised when I see a huge audience for a photo show because it's so engaging. It's a visceral connection to your world out there. These are literally windows to the world out there. And we love TV, we love movies and all of that, but the single still image is just something that you can look at and appreciate and savor and come back to over and over and over again and read it a different way. One of the frustrating things for me as a photo editor and as a photographer as well, is when people glance at a photo like, "Oh, that's nice. Oh, that's cool. Oh, that's cool. That's cool. That's cool." And you just keep flipping through. But when you stop and you look at a photo for a minute or two, all of this new information comes out. Why is this person standing there? Where's the light coming from? Especially when you look at the pictures of Harlow Cagwin, what's going through his mind? Jean, she was the engine of the family. Harlow, he's old and he's very much slowed down. And even in the still photos, you can see Jean, she's just churning, churning, churning, working all the time, moving all the time. There's a famous picture in the book of Harlow sitting down outside the house as the house is demolished. The Cagwin's just walked out of the house and the bulldozer comes and starts tearing down the house. And he just puts his head down and hangs his head. And talk about a poignant picture and how much information is in that picture. You look at it and you think, "How sad." But when you really think about what's going through his mind, it's mind blowing really. It's a moment. Diane Moca: And where do you see photography going? I mean, we focus on video, but of course photography is important too. Is there an evolution going on? For someone to do a book like this, that's not something that every professional photographer does. And I don't know how easy or hard that is or is going to be even in the future. Mike Zajakowski: Yeah. So we're kind of in a phase right now. This is all just my opinion, but we're in this phase where photography is a shiny object. It's like, "Ooh, ah, look what you can do with it. We can do Photoshop, we can do 3D, we can do these part motion, part still photographs called synographs." You can do all these amazing things. And with my iPhone, it uses something called computational photography, which is so hard to wrap your head around. But what it does is your phone takes many pictures. When you point it at something and press the button, it's taking many pictures and then it's running algorithms on the data and creating a picture that it thinks you want. So it's not an exact representation of what was in front of you. It's a different thing. Diane Moca: I didn't know that. Mike Zajakowski: And that's called computational photography. But the reason I brought it up is that- Diane Moca: Do all digital cameras do that? Mike Zajakowski: Well, it depends on the camera, but the latest iPhones, it's- Diane Moca: And do you think that's a good thing? Mike Zajakowski: I think it's a good thing for taking snapshots of your family and landscapes in Ireland or South Africa- Diane Moca: So it fixes things. Mike Zajakowski: ... or wherever. Yeah, it's great when you're going on Safari in Kenya. Diane Moca: But to capture a moment in time, you may lose something? Mike Zajakowski: No. Depending on what you want out of it, it's great. It's fine. And the same thing is true if you use a crummy camera. You just have what you have. What I believe really is that authentic photography is always essential, and it has to be part of our lives. We have to be able to believe in what we see. And that's where photojournalism fills this void that you see on Instagram and on television, even some people would say, even the news. We have a need to believe what we see. So we make the leap and we believe things that are not true on Instagram or from political campaigns or whatever, but we need to get trustworthy information in words, but especially in pictures, because pictures are so powerful. So we need photojournalists, we need honest photojournalists, we need honest photo editors. We need people to be aware of the difference between a real photograph and a fake photograph. It doesn't matter what your iPhone is doing. If you're taking a picture of your grandma or your kids or whatever, if you like it, that's great. But if you're a photojournalist and you're going out to shoot a story, yes, there are all these variables like where you stand, what lens you use, when you chose to press the button. But there is an authenticity there that's grounded in a code of ethics, and that is what matters, whether you have a code of ethics and how you follow it and how that affects the results. So it's really critical. There will always be a need for authentic photography, whether it's digital or film or whatever. Diane Moca: So the real truth out there is down to that one photo, that one photo that captures? Mike Zajakowski: Yeah. And over the decades, over the 150 plus years that it's been around, I mean, 99% of photography is BS, to put it politely, which is fine. There is that authenticity in so much of the work that we need and has literally changed the course of the world so many times over. So if you think of famous news photographs, you look at a photograph that's on the wall at the Pulitzer Center, all these Pulitzer Prize winning photos, these photos literally changed history because thousands or millions of people looked at these pictures and decided to act or decided to do something or not do something. Diane Moca: The child running. Mike Zajakowski: Yeah. Yeah. Nick Ut shooting the girl who was burned by napalm. Right. It's horrific and it was true. I taught at DePaul for a few years, just one class, but in visual communication. And I used that picture again to talk about how people's minds were changed when they saw that photograph. It was one of many photographs that people were seeing coming out of Vietnam in Life Magazine and on TV, on the CBS Evening News and all that. But that absolutely changed people's lives. Diane Moca: So do you feel a sense of pride anytime someone publishes a meaningful photography book like this? Mike Zajakowski: I'm happy about it. Yeah, I'm happy about it. Sure, sure. This is all Scott's. This is all his thing. Diane Moca: Well, it's a sense of pride for your industry and for good work to get out there, because the more something like this is published, the more you get that good work out there. And you were talking about the mindfulness of looking at the pictures. It's a coffee table type book where you put it out, you don't just put it on a shelf. This is the book you put on your coffee table. And every so often you open it up and you look at that picture and you absorb it in the way that you were talking about. Mike Zajakowski: But I just have to say about Scott, because he's unique in many ways, but one of the ways that Scott is so effective at what he does is he's a good guy and he is a good representative of the industry. He is a great photojournalist because he's won every award five times. That's one thing. It's not about the awards, but it's about how he conducts himself and about what he looks for and how he does his job. And that's super important. So he's a great ambassador for journalism and photojournalism and the ideals behind those endeavors. So this is just wonderful. Diane Moca: And I thank you for devoting your life to photography. And we thank Scott for this book.