Thank He or She for the Babcias in this World

One of the best things that came out of one of my first jobs was befriending a woman named Krys Chlebek.  I’d like to think we became friends because we shared similar intellectual interests, but honestly, I think we bonded over our mutual Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that we disguised as some sort of deep, meaningful, existential angst.   Training for marathons, hitting Chicago events and sharing online (and offline) dating stories did not link us like the daily conversations involving the question: “Why the hell are we here and WTF is going to happen to us when we die?” ….and repeat…..

Krys tells me that her last name “Chlebek” in Polish means, “little bread”.  And how appropriate, because when I would visit her family home on the Northwest side of Chicago her babcia (grandmother) from Poland would have about eight Polish bakeries worth of cakes, breads, and cookies out on the counter for us to eat.   I loved visiting that home because after running around Chicago, trying to hunt down the perfect profession or the best mate, I’d open the door to the Chlebek house and suddenly the world was comforting: it had order, answers, and baked goods.  When you entered their home, you never knew what smells would waft your way ; her mother and father would come to hug you and say “Hello Suzi! Come in, have something!”   (Their Polish accents, thankfully, were not affected by living in this country for over 40 years).  After walking up the stairs, Babcia would stick her head out of her bedroom and wave, only to go back to listen to Polish radio with a large replica of the “Black Madonna” hanging on her wall.

Krys’ frustrations with dealing with her ties to Poland always fascinated me because I never had ties to anything beyond my immediate family.  We know only a bit about our European ancestry, so listening to stories about the Chlebek’s home village in Poland was like listening to fairy tales.  One day Krys called me in tears after she came back from a 13-mile run.  Apparently, her babcia patted her belly and said, “All of this running around! When will you have baby?”    I was horrified, but in some strange way, it also gave me comfort knowing that sort of thing was still present in a world of , “It’s your life, do what you want!”  Listening to Krys describe her experiences in Catholic school and learning new words in Polish also took me far away from my open- ended, anxiety- filled questions about work and relationships for the “modern” female.  Once, after trying to date a really sweet guy I just wasn’t attracted to, Krys took away my guilt and my fear with one fell swoop by saying,  “Oh Suzi, he’s not for you – he’s too drewniany.”  (pronounced Drev nyan ay) “What does that mean?!” I asked.   She replied, “It means wooden, dead……boring!”  God, I felt the biggest relief after learning that Polish word.  The sound of the Polish language is so definite, so absolute and final.  It’s comforting.  And it was comforting to know I didn’t really want drewniany in my life.

Having two generations of Polish natives in one house means a lot of culture, but it also means generations die out in front of one another.  My grandmother died in a nursing home in Florida – far, far away from my reality.  Sad, yes, but I did not have to confront death like those who must confront it in their own home.  Krys’ grandmother is now 95 and a few years ago she told me that her babcia was fearfully asking her, “What happens when we die? Where do we go?”  I stopped Krys when she told me and I yelled,   “Wait, wait, the woman who sent her children to Catholic school, prays the rosary every day and has a picture of the Black Madonna over her bed is worried about where we go?!  Then where do I get MY comfort?!”   Krys and I laughed …..and then we sighed and stared blankly out the window.

I took these photos of Babcia last year after insisting that I wanted to have a permanent vision of her on that bed, listening to Polish radio, in that room where she spoke to my friend in a mystical language I’d never understand.  I remember being a bit disappointed with the shoot because I had a particular vision of what I wanted that photo to be.   Krys’ little girls were skittish and Babcia didn’t quite understand where I wanted her to sit.  But, when I look at them, I like them. I see certainty through the chaos.  I see Babcia’s full history and rooted belief right there on the bed – solid, unwavering as she looks right at my lens.  I look at the miracle of the years on her face and all that she has been through – she is a living example of strength and resilience.  And that, in and of itself, is enough for me.  She’s a pillar.

One of my greatest sources of anxiety after becoming an adult was realizing that no one had all of the answers : not an adult, not an institution, not even a babcia dipped in years of holy water and wine from the Eucharist.  When I look at this photo and when I’m actually standing in the Chlebek home looking at Babcia and that Black Madonna, a variety of things go through my head.  I realize I find comfort in those old institutions and rituals, and I remember the elders like my own grandmother who would speak in very black and white terms, ” You listen here Buster, what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. All you need to do is listen to The Man upstairs. He knows it all.”   And,  I also hear my own mother answering back and completely confusing my grandmother by asking, “But what if He is a She?”    And then I hear myself ask, “Well, what if He or She is not there at all?”   And when my eyes glaze over and that sinking feeling of doubt creeps up on me, I turn around and know that Babcia’s plate of Polish cookies and sweet rolls are right behind me on the counter, ready for the taking.

Fall Family Portraits

Fall is one of my favorite seasons to capture families and children in natural light.  The sun is low, the temperature is right and the leaves are just starting to show their colors.  A couple of weeks ago I photographed the darling Bendat – Appell family on a sunny Sunday morning in Highland Park, IL.   After the first ten minutes, photographing the baby was like attempting to capture a fly in chopsticks  Mr. Miyagi style.  But, his supreme cuteness made me want to get him even more, so I chased him until he pretty much hated me.   Thanks for being such a great family to work with Bendat – Appells,  and thanks for helping me get my workout in early that day – it was an honor and so much fun. 

Toga! Toga!

I’ve been able to re-vist the  “glory days” of college  through a number of photo shoots I’ve had over the years.  Lake Forest College, Washington University, Loyola and Northwestern have allowed me to go back from time to time.  (Washington University photos shot for Red Box Pictures in Seattle)

I also had the honor of shooting the late, great Gary Marshall’s family during what would have been his 60th college reunion at Northwestern University.  Marshall’s contributions to his alma mater have been immense.

A Run to Remember

I’ve always been a sunset kind of person, but a couple of weeks ago I learned to love and respect the dawn.  I had to wake up at 3 a.m. on a Sunday to shoot an event in Chicago for Wear Blue:Run to Remember at the Chicago Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon.  I watched the sun come up over the Chicago River while volunteers (which included family members of fallen soldiers) line a mile of the race with photos of their deceased loved ones in preparation for the race.  After a quiet prayer circle, the echoes of the names of those lost to war bounced off of the skyscrapers as each of the 150 volunteers called them out.  Soon after, runners came by to touch flags and kiss the photos of lost husbands, children, parents, and friends.  It was only after the race that I learned the woman who hired me had started Wear Blue after she lost her young husband in Afghanistan.  This brave young mother of three young children could have given up, but she took her grief and made something great out of it.  I encourage everyone to discover and support this great organization started by Lisa Hallett.  Her story and the story of the organization’s beginnings can be seen here.

Learning to Hunt Jackrabbits with Miles Davis

I was fortunate enough to attend the NAFA (National American Falconer’s Association) 2016 meet in Elk City, OK to photograph and cover the only woman in the United States who hunts with a golden eagle for Amtrack’s magazine “The National”.   After covering a wild mustang story together for “Hemispheres Magazine”, writer Eric Benson and I set our sites on a new goal and found this amazing young woman and her passion for raptors.  In the article, you will learn about Lauren McGough, how she became a berkutchi in Mongolia and how she is one of the few females who is a part of NAFA.  You’ll also learn about the beauty and frustration of hunting for jackrabbits with the massive beast she calls a “Prarie Dragon”.

Eric and I went on two hunts with Lauren and Miles  (along a with a team of  “scare-boys”), and  I have to say is it’s akin to running a hilly half marathon – often with no prize at the end.   During the chase, I was able to observe Lauren and Miles through my 200mm lens and all I could think was, “They look like they’re going to take off together.”   They were truly a team.

Photographers and writers often work separately, and I think it does a disservice to the written and visual parts storytelling – so it was great to be a team with Eric again.  With that said, I’m leaving the words to him – you can read it online here:   As for some of the visuals, you can come along with us to the fields of Oklahoma and experience some of what it was like to hunt for miles….. with Miles.

Weigh – in time.  Miles has to step on the scale so Lauren can check his weight before a hunt.  She likes him to be a bit light so she know’s he’s hungry and motivated.

Surveying the scene.

Lauren directing us on which way to walk  (according to the wind).

Miles and Lauren charging up a hill.

Miles in flight. The rabbit won this one.

The owner of the Oklahoma farm we hunted on was nice enough to find us to bring snacks and water.

The “team” in the fields of Oklahoma.

Even though Miles didn’t catch anything, he is rewarded with rabbit bits.

And… the post-hunt reward for the “scare-boys”.

Hunt #2 – The line of ‘scare-boys” starting out with Lauren and Miles.

He’s off – hot on the trail of a jackrabbit!

Success at last!  Note for sensitive people – the rabbit dies very quickly.

Miles is taken off the rabbit and given a piece of quail.  If he stays too long with the rabbit, it can break the bond between the bird and the human.

I’m gonna miss that face.

Monster Margaritas + Wild Waves + Mass Humanity = Fun I Phone Photo Project!

Several years ago my brother and his wife started taking their kids up to Wilderness Lodge in the Wisconsin Dells for a little mid-winter break.  It wasn’t their usual vacation, but they started to enjoy the benefits of a weekend with a bunch of other midwesterners in a faux-tropical environment filled with chlorinated water, screeching children, and margaritas the size of a human head.  He always said, “You’ve got to see this place”.  Last year I finally went and witnessed the most bizarre environment I’d ever seen:  Fathers floating on “The Lazy River” with a napping infant, families gathered together on towels with babies and booze,  grandparents taking a plunge down the treacherous “Hurricane”.

What a perfect sociological study!  What a perfect photo project! I quickly realized that I couldn’t pull out my large camera, as I’d really look creepy and probably get kicked out.  So this year I documented some of it on my i phone.  My niece told me I looked creepy anyway, so I eventually stopped shooting.   I think what I got was worth it; I want the world to witness this American phenomenon without the suffering.  Enjoy –  I bet you can almost smell the chlorine and tequila.

Alissa & Zach

On October 1st, I spent a rainy but beautiful Saturday at the Grand Geneva in Lake Geneva, WI photographing the wedding of Alissa & Zach.   Alissa’ s family has been neighbors and friends with my family for over 50 years and this connection made it an extra special wedding shoot.  Like any wedding day, there inevitably were perfect and imperfect moments, and I was so glad to be there for all of them.  In the end, the beautiful moments stood out – even during the most stressful parts of the day.

Zach and Alissa grew up in the same neighborhood and were buddies throughout childhood.  When they were 12 Zach told Alissa he was going to marry her. When they were in their teens, Zach hid outside and waited for Alissa to break up with a boy that was wrong for her.  When he left, Zach rang the doorbell to ask Alissa to their prom.  And… the rest is history.  Congratulations you two!  It was an amazing privilege to photograph your big day!

Happy Bruce Day!

Happy Birthday Bruce!

I just read “Vanity Fair’s” article on Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, “Born to Run”, and he talks about how he has a major let – down after his concerts are over. It’s comforting to know he feels the pain too.  I remember after one of his concerts with a friend I said, “What? We’re just supposed to leave now and go back to our normal, boring lives?”

I took this photo last April for Backstreets Magazine during Bruce Springsteen’s “The River”  tour in Milwaukee.  It was an extra special shoot because my brother Steve was also at the concert and he had seats right behind the stage.  While I was standing on the platform with the other photographers, we saw each other and I snapped a photo of him with my sister-in-law, Debbie.  At that moment I was so happy we got to share another Springsteen concert experience.  We’re all looking a little older, but that same energy is there.

After begging to see The Police at age 13 and Tears for Fears at 15,  I was finally allowed to go to my first concert at 16.   On August 9, 1985,  I went to see Bruce at Soldier Field with Steve and a friend.  It was general admission, so we had to wait most of the day outside of the stadium.  We sat on the sidewalk in the heat for hours until they opened the doors, and when the moment came, all I remember is my brother yelling, “Run!”

We tore through people and fought our way to the front part of the field (not front row but we were closer than mid -field).   After 4 hours of amazingness and the dark, electric drive home, I took a bath, the water turned black, and I realized great things are worth waiting for.  Even if you have to leave them.