By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
He was the youngest of six children, and the only member of the family born in the United States. "I separated my family life from my social life," he says. "I never thought about being Chinese unless I was at home. My family sometimes seemed exotic even to me." The conditioned ability to see something foreign and noteworthy even in the mundanities of one's own domestic life might eventually have made a photographer of him. But, he says, as a boy he assumed that he would follow his father and brothers into the restaurant business.
At age 20, Huie and one of his brothers made a trip to Hong Kong, then as now the East's City of Light. It was a revelation, first because he'd never seen so many Asians in one place before--the exotic suddenly became pedestrian--and second because he bought his first camera there. He began taking pictures of his family and his neighborhood, and enrolled in a photography course at the University of Minnesota, but he still didn't think seriously of the craft. He decided, instead, that he'd become a writer. "I went through different periods: Vonnegut, Henry Miller, Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice. You couldn't get that in Duluth, so I thought I was really cool."
After he finished college, Huie migrated to the Twin Cities, where he began freelancing as a journalist and photographer, and bartending to make ends meet. On one of his first commissions he went out into the city to photograph people's most prized possessions. "The assignment was to make order out of chaos," he says, "so I knocked on people's doors like a salesman. It was amazing getting inside their homes, and it got me wondering what goes on in different neighborhoods."
At the same time, however, he was growing disillusioned with photojournalism and commercial photography--though he still does both to support himself--because of the limits on time and subject matter. "You know how you know you should be doing something and you aren't doing it and you think about it every day and it stresses you out? That's pretty much what my 20s were about."
He doesn't recall the moment he came upon the idea of documenting a neighborhood, but in the aforementioned preface, he traces it to a single afternoon stroll around University Avenue, near where he was then living. "For several blocks I didn't see anyone. It seemed as though everyone was hiding. But then I turned a corner and was struck by the sight of a mélange of families, all on the same block--Asian, black, and white--out on their respective porches enjoying the day. And there were children everywhere, spilling out from the curbless sidewalks onto the street. Then I saw a nun in a full white habit, walking through this jumble of life like an angel, or an aberration. It was intoxicating to witness such an exotic mix in such commonplace surroundings. I felt as though I had discovered strange new territory." His exploration culminated in Lake Street USA's precursor, an acclaimed 1995 street exhibit of 173 photos taken in St. Paul's Frogtown.
"I didn't have any sort of social agenda," he recalls, "but I showed the photos to a handful of friends, and people started asking questions about the social implications. I'm not an activist, but I have to be responsible to the larger purpose."
Here, he stops. He doesn't like to expand too much on his larger purpose: He fears that thinking too much will jinx what, to him, remains a mysterious and deeply intimate exchange between subject and artist. And he distrusts art that comes with rhetoric grander than its actuality. The closest he will come to describing his philosophy as a photographer is this: "A lot of my work is about coexisting realities. You can't experience another person's reality no matter how empathetic you are."
Huie's initial encounter with Lake Street, he says, was part by design and part by serendipity. He'd taken a studio near Powderhorn Park, and the neighborhood quickly became his new subject. Here was a transit artery that bisected the entire American socioeconomic spectrum, from the tony Gap-and-Starbucks-infested Uptown area to the down-at-the-heels east end. Here, also, was a chain of ethnic enclaves that mirrors the full range of the American citizenry. As in nowhere else in the city, Huie saw in Lake Street a microcosm of the new America, a place where those parallel realities shift against one another in constant tectonic flux.
Jane Strauss, a gregarious and mildly eccentric woman, has lived along Lake Street for 20 years. She has been, at various times, an actor, a writer, a visual artist, a teacher, and a mother. She now resides in a brick house that is trim on the outside--and inside appears to have seen the visitation of a number of tornadoes (who are, she says, currently two-and-a-half, eleven, thirteen, fifteen, and seventeen years old). Strauss is also an amateur auto mechanic, and she stables two cars in her back yard: a pumpkin-orange Volkswagen Beetle and a gray 1964 S-Series Jaguar. "Just because you're an orthodox Jewish lady," she exclaims, "doesn't mean you can't mess around with cars."