Marc PoKempner has been an ASMP member since 1973 and his status was recently upgraded to Life Member. Working as a independent photojournalist for publications like The New York Times Magazine, Time, Newsweek, People and the Chicago Reader to name a few, he’s shot assignments all over the United States, and in Cuba . His two books Harold! and Down at Theresa’s: Chicago Blues reflect his interest in culture and progressive politics. Some of the photos he made of Barack Obama, the first ones of the young politician, are part of the exhibit “Chicago Reader in Black and White” now at Gage Gallery at 18 S Michigan Ave. thru , which includes other examples of his work, along with that of other regular Reader contributors.He spoke with Will Nunnally for a Depth of Field Interview about his career and the value he still sees in ASMP membership. All images below are © Marc PoKempner
ASMP: How did you get started in photography?
Marc PoKempner: I was a bit of a lost soul in college. It was the late 60s and many changes were in the wind. I was at University of Chicago, which was in some ways over my head academically. I had written for my high school paper. I was swept up in the photography craze, saw the film “Blow UP” many times. I started making pictures for the Maroon, the student paper. Other students taught me the rudiments of darkroom work, and I liked that a lot. It was a way for me to explore the world: Hyde Park, the Southside and eventually more of Chicago. I also drove a cab for a while.I stumbled on some articles in Aperture magazine written by Minor White, a professor at MIT. I became very interested in his ideas, which created kind of a bridge between those of Jungian psychology, which fascinated me, and the practice of photography. I never imagined a bridge between them, but there it was. Minor wrote in Aperture about photography using the terms that Jung used about alchemy. About creating your personality by “working in a dark room” - a metaphor for the unconscious - that kind of notion. Also dealing in visual images with archetypes and identifiable patterns - something in the world that was suggestive of patterns in your mind, even in your dreams. It was an important connection for me between the intellectual world of the U of C, and the physical world of photography. I was happy to spend more time with Minor during the year I worked as staff photographer for MIT’s news office. I came back to Chicago to finish my BA and found more professional opportunities here than in Boston.
ASMP: Tell us about how your book Down at Theresa’s: Chicago Blues came about.Marc PoKempner: The College sponsored concerts by local blues players - Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. They played in Mandel Hall, or in the gym for dances. When Junior would play on campus he would say “Ya’ll come on down and see me at Theresa’s", a tavern on 48th & Indiana. It was only a mile away but it was a whole different world than the one I knew. So when we got old enough, and brave enough, we would go down to these blues clubs in the ghetto. Theresa was very welcoming, and Junior really did sort of look out for folks who came down to hear him, that weren’t from the neighborhood. This was the 60s and students were smoking pot, protesting against the Vietnam war and for civil rights, and listening to music. Music was our anthem, the voice of our rebellion, our anti-war sentiment, and our connection to Black culture. It led me to lots of interesting experiences and places, but first it led me to Theresa’s - a working class, mostly black clientele from the neighborhood who used this place as their nightly living room. They would come and drink and talk and watch the ball games and celebrate the events of their lives. And there was also this incredible, emotional, powerful music 2 or 3 nights a week. Sometimes 4, 5, or 6 nights a week. The people came and danced and drank, and there was a very close relationship between the audience and the musicians. I felt it was wonderful! Like visiting another country, only a mile away from campus. I wanted to share that experience..
ASMP: You’ve run a viable business for decades- a feat many starting out don’t realize the amount of skill and dedication it takes to do so. Do you have any tips for young photographers who are just getting their first taste of the industry or thinking of starting their own business?
Marc PoKempner: I started working for the Reader, which always respected photographers’ rights. Also Time, People, Newsweek were operating under the agreements ASMP had won in battles in the forties and fifties. ASMP began, I believe, representing Time & Life photographers - freelancers - whose pics were getting used and reused in all of Time-Life publications without their permission. Time would pay them once and use the work forever. ASMP was organized by a group of photographers in order to get Time to understand that freelancers sold work for one time use and if they wanted to use or sell it elsewhere they had to compensate them. This was a very important principle - that freelancers owned the rights to their work. It was the basis of ASMP. I started in the 70s and that was still the prevailing ethic. Magnum was the elite group which championed it and promulgated the idea, but ASMP was an everymans organization that represented all photographers in that situation, so the info that I got from them was invaluable as far as understanding copyright and what your rights in your work were.
That information and those principles - which are being fought over and redefined again today - is so valuable. Now young people are forced to sign away their rights routinely, just to work for a local paper! I just had a picture published in The Reader today from the Gage Gallery show, and they wanted to use one of my Obama pictures. I knew I couldn’t’ charge what I normally do, but I said “OK” and I let them pay me what they offered, which was $150 for two insertions: one in the Reader and one in the Sun-Times. They published them, and now they’ve sent four or five different pieces of paperwork that included contracts saying they can use the pictures over again, they can resell it, they can archive it and use it in other publications, in advertisements, etc. This is bullshit. 150 bucks?! With knowledge and resources I got from ASMP, I can stand up to them, but I know very well the young photographers who are coming along are told it’s “sign the contract or hit the road.”I learned to put the right language in all of my invoices and to be clear: they’re not buying the copyright, just specific use. I’d give my clients, especially not-for-profits, whatever use they needed. But if a corporate sponsor used the photo, I could charge a fee to make up the difference in the day-rate between my client and a for-profit corporation.ASMP: What advice would you give to newer ASMP members, or students who are thinking of joining, to get the most out of their membership?
Marc PoKempner: Most important is the work you do! There are stories that need to be told, and a whole new universe of avenues to get it out to the public. If the work is powerful, has integrity, is timely - someone will pay attention.I recommend the organization because of the work that they’ve done with business practices: copyright, maintaining tax deductions for unreimbursed expenses, etc. - but also in protecting access to photograph in all kinds of situations. Protecting photographers rights and educating photographers about those rights is crucial! That’s why I’ve been a member all these years and that’s why I think it’s important to be a member.ASMP: What do you still like about photography?
Marc PoKempner: I still love the way it gets me out of the house and into situations that I don’t know about. I love the “permission” that it gives me to go up and talk to people that I don’t know. I make photographs of the vendors at the flea market, the Maxwell Street Market - my way of making contact. I photograph music performance - my way of responding to the music; I can’t just sit there.I love shooting for organizations that are working on social problems - it feels great to be part of a solution! And I’m keeping my eyes out for the next story that I want to do.