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Washed-up cowboys, lady mechanics, homeless philosophers--photographer Wing Young Huie has seen it all. Now, by hanging 600 of his Lake Street portraits in public, he's ready to show the city to itself.

The logistics are indeed staggering. There are hundreds of photos to print, enlarge, and install in storefront windows and on bus-stop shelters. There are skeptical business owners to convince that the pictures won't be too provocative, too political, too black, too white, too big, too personal, or too arty (all of which they will, to some extent, be). There are corporate flacks to bypass, and city officials to entreat. There is a book deal to work out with St. Paul's Ruminator Press, and an online catalog to design. (A collection of Huie's Lake Street photos ran in City PagesSeptember 10, 1997.) There is still $50,000 to raise--roughly half the exhibit's total budget. There is a stack of unlicked fundraising envelopes waiting back at Huie's south Minneapolis studio that would tax any mortal's salivary capacity. There are minutiae of tone and contrast to resolve with the printers, which is where we're now headed.

The photographer's print shop of choice, Photos Inc., is located in a squat office building in a West Bank industrial park. We park the car and move inside. Wing is five-foot-ten, slender, and complexly freckled, which, when added to his stoop-shouldered gait, simultaneously points to much time spent outside in the sun and many hours bent over in the false twilight of the darkroom. While working, he favors jeans and open flannel shirts. His hair is buzzed militarily short. He is often very quiet, and his eyes, which are dark and focused, suggest great reserves of patience. When he does speak, it is in an evenly modulated voice that must put the subjects of his photos at immediate ease, coax them into opening themselves to the camera's cycloptic gaze. In casual conversation, though, he often seems to be only half-present, as though the bulk of his attention is devoted to some private calculation.

Inside the shop Huie stops to chat with the receptionist. He's been making the trip to Photos Inc. at least twice a week for the past month to check on the progress of the printing, which is costing $40,000 and is thus a source of constant anxiety, and he now knows nearly everyone here. The office and print shop are done in institutional white and smell faintly of chemicals. After a minute or two we go through a set of double doors, where Roger, the Photos Inc. printer who has been working almost exclusively with Huie, rolls out the most recent edition of the exhibit's signature 12-foot-by-8-foot portrait.

The picture, one of the first Huie took when he began shooting more than three years ago, is of a woman and child. He met them, he recalls, at a Martin Luther King Day celebration in Powderhorn Park. The woman is wearing a black overcoat and is holding the child close, almost wrapping her in its folds. When Huie first saw the negatives, he says, the pose reminded him of a kangaroo holding a joey in its pouch. The photo also recalls something else: The woman's gaze is focused straight at the camera, while the girl's eyes are averted up and to her right. It's an uncanny approximation of the iconographic Madonna and child.

But something isn't right. Huie has been playing with tonal variations, trying to heighten the portrait's contrast so that it will be clearly visible from yards away. Ideally, the dual-tone print will be richer and warmer than one done in straight black ink. In this incarnation, however, the sepia tint is too strong. It overpowers the contrast between the figures and the background, and even from a few feet away the photo looks washed out and indistinct. Huie smoothes the glossy paper with one hand and stares glumly. This means another printing, and the project's unofficial public debut, which he has taken to calling his D-day, is only two weeks away.

 

Huie's studio is located on the second floor of a converted bakery building on the modest, tree-fringed edge of the Powderhorn Park neighborhood. It's an airy, well-lighted space and would be very roomy except that it now appears to have been requisitioned as the headquarters for a minor military operation. A hand-drawn map of Lake Street covered in nests of colored pushpins takes up most of one wall. The room itself is occupied almost exclusively by wheeled bulletin boards, which are covered by most of the exhibit's photos, along with printed excerpts from the interviews Huie recorded to accompany them. In the background, Elvis Presley is warbling "Stuck on You."

This morning, the photographer is on the phone with a city official, negotiating the release of ten bus-stop shelters along Lake Street. The woman sounds tinny and far away over speakerphone. Huie, who is wearing black jeans and a black shirt, has crossed his elbows over his chest and has a look of intense consternation. He suddenly seems like the sort of person who would make a formidable chess opponent. "My crystal ball is real foggy," the official is saying. "August and September are real busy for us." The bus stops--which Huie conceived of as supplements to the storefront displays--are going to be somewhat more difficult to secure than he'd first thought.

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