Photography exhibit brings West Side to DPAM

The lifeless white walls were once again transformed in the DePaul Art Museum, this time filled with lives, sharing their stories.

We Shall, the latest exhibition by photographer Paul D’Amato, opened Thursday evening at the DePaul Art Museum. The series is a collection of portraits and urban landscapes captured on the West Side of Chicago.

“I was one of Paul’s students at Columbia [College Chicago] and I thought the work Paul does was perfect for us,” said Gregory Harris, associate curator at DPAM. “We’ve been going back and forth for the past two years, deciding what we wanted to say.”

After all of the collaboration between the artist and DPAM, We Shall tells the complex stories of individuals and communities on Chicago’s West Side as well as the now-defunct Chicago housing project Cabrini-Green was born, covering the first floor of the space.

“Paul’s work is complex, it’s about Chicago but it’s also about the process of making a photograph,” said Louise Lincoln, DPAM museum director. “He has a way of working that’s collaborative rather than voyeuristic.”

At the exhibit’s opening Thursday night, it was clear the relationship D’Amato formed with the subjects of this work. He gave all of his subjects VIP invites to the show as well as a copy of the book that accompanied the exhibit. As he mingled with friends and Columbia photography students past and present, he made sure his subjects were taken care of to the highest degree – thrilled more for them that they had a moment of fame rather than himself.

Doreka Bell, 21, and her family were an integral part of D’Amato’s series.

“He met my mother on the street and from there we became best friends,” Bell said as she looked upon “Darrielle and Dasia, 2012,” one of the photographs in the exhibit that featured Bell’s brother.

“He’s been supporting our family,” Bell said. “He’s like a father to me.”

Bell and her family members milled about the museum, with the others, glowing with excitement, proud to show the work they’ve been a part of.

D’Amato’s portraits are striking, large format prints that allow the viewers to be engulfed by the stories of the lives that are scattered throughout the museum.

“Couples by the Lake, 2011” is one of the larger prints in the exhibit, making the subjects seem almost life-sized. Caught almost-mid sentence, D’Amato captured a seemingly insignificant moment, yet it is a very intimate moment, a moment that shows how comfortable D’Amato’s subjects were with him.

“Easter Choir, Jackson Boulevard Community Church, 2011” features a group of children milling around and a young man, separated from the crowd slightly, looking straight at D’Amato and his camera. The boy is James William, now 16.

“I didn’t even know it was going to happen like this,” said James, thinking they had been brought to take pictures for the church, nothing more. “I was surprised, but I was happy.”

D’Amato’s photos heavily rely on light and shadow to tell the stories in his portraits, using the elements to highlight very specific parts of the photos to advance the narratives. The colors are soft and inviting, encouraging the viewer to be engulfed in the lives D’Amato has been able to so successfully share.

The portraits are offset with a few shots that illustrated the environment of his subjects. “Bedroom Door, Cabrini Green, 2007” and “634 West Division Street, Cabrini Green, 2006” show the living conditions on the nowdefunct housing projects. The shot of the bedroom door is a cropped shot of the door that reads like a collage project, filled with writing and half-torn pictures that suggest unkempt living.

“634 West Division Street, Cabrini Green, 2006” shows the projects in the midst of destruction, with the exterior wall missing and revealing the dilapidated units once behind the wall. Just beyond in the background sits the Hancock Building and the development of Downtown Chicago, a shocking juxtaposition just blocks away.

We Shall will be on-view at DPAM through Nov. 24. D’Amato and Harris will lead a guided tour of the exhibit and a gallery talk Nov. 2.