Photographer Penetrates The Surface


There was something about him that caught John Atwood’s eye.

It was the way he was standing. Watching. Waiting. The way he kept his focus. And when the sunlight streamed through the Chicago train window, perfectly lighting the old man’s white face, Mr. Atwood snapped a picture—first with a Leica camera and then with his cellphone.

Witness to the interaction was an African-American man, sitting in a wheelchair. When Mr. Atwood’s subject got off at his stop, he turned to the photographer and asked, “Hey, man?”

“What’s up?” Mr. Atwood replied, with a trace of his native Missouri accent.

“You just took that dude’s picture, man,” he said.

“Yeah, what are you gonna do?” Mr. Atwood shrugged. “You know, he’s standing right there. Did you see him? Did you see the way he looked? It was just interesting as hell.”

“You always take pictures of people, man?”

“Yeah, pretty much, like every day.”

“Why you do it?”

“I dunno. Why do you take pictures of your family? Why do you take pictures of anything?”

“I guess you just remember it, right?”

Memory, and its relationship with time and photography, has always fascinated Mr. Atwood, from the time he was 13 and discovered the pictures his father, Bill, took while serving as Air Force intelligence in Saigon, Vietnam. The senior Mr. Atwood captured the civilians’ humanity, a quality that his son had never seen during coverage of the war and one that will not fade with time, he said. Each snapshot is a memory, he said, and the photographer will put his to the test during his second residency at the Watermill Center this month.

“For me, when I was a kid, I just wanted to do what my father was doing,” he said last Thursday during an interview in his workspace. “And then, you start going out looking for people, looking for things. A lot of people say my work is sad, my work is lonely, but it’s funny because I’m not sad and I’m not lonely. I’m, like, a happy guy. I don’t think art is a struggle at all, for sure. I wouldn’t do it if I did.”

The photographer’s most recent project brought him into the streets of Chicago—his current home base—and Manhattan, where he shot close to 1,500 stills in two weeks. And while waiting to pick up his 40 developed rolls of film, Mr. Atwood has charged himself with one task: remembering.

“I sat down last night, after I settled in, and took a notepad and just started doing quick, boom, boom sketches,” he said. “One second, page, one second, page,” he said, gesturing the act of flipping pages. “And these next couple days, I’ll try to hone in on 10 or 12 of those, polish them and compare them to the photos I took. It’s really a strange feeling because what you see through the viewfinder is not always what you get.”

The sketches will be scanned with the photos and laid over a video filmed during Mr. Atwood’s city travels. Everywhere he walked, he shot. And he never asked for permission—not for this project or any other.

“Everybody has a façade they put up when they know their picture is going to be taken,” he said. “They try to change who they are, so you have to steal it from them to show who they really are.”

At times, the photographer’s technique angers his subjects. He has heard his fair share of threats, he said. But no one has ever landed a punch.

“The thing is, I’m not a huge dude, I’m not a small dude,” he said. “So people will look at me and they’re just like, ‘I’d probably get hurt. I might win, but I’d probably get hurt.’ I have this advantage.”

Last winter, after Mr. Atwood’s first Watermill residency, he was exploring Manhattan and snapped a picture of a man smoking a cigarette. The subject did not take it well.

“You could tell he was irritated and he walked up to me and was like, ‘You betta be careful,’” Mr. Atwood laughed. “I loved it, I thought that was hilarious.”

He chuckled for a few more seconds and then continued, “There’s not one human being I’ve seen that’s not interesting. But it’s really strange, the ones who walk into perfect backdrops, perfect scenarios. Those are the ones you have to take.”

The older man on the Chicago train was one of those people, Mr. Atwood said. And the photographer couldn’t help himself, which left the onlooker with endless questions.

“You ever take a picture of a bird?” the man asked Mr. Atwood.

“It’s funny you said that,” he replied. “I never take pictures of birds. For some reason today, I did. There was a light and a guy, it was good.”

“Okay. What about a special cloud?”

“Sure, dude, special cloud for sure. I take many pictures of special clouds.”

“But mostly people?”

“Mostly people. You should get a camera. It would be fun, man. Just shoot. Take pictures of your special clouds and your birds, whatever you want to do pictures of.”

“What would I do it for?”

Mr. Atwood considered the question for a moment.

“The whole thing is, after you shoot for a long time, then you learn how you see the world,” he said. “You look at your whole body when it’s done—God willing it’s not done—but after time you start to see how you see things. That, to me, is really interesting. Probably more interesting than the individuals I take photos of.”

John Atwood will present an open rehearsal of “If you stand long enough you become a place” on Tuesday, June 11, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Watermill Center. For more information, call 726-4628 or visit

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