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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.

As such, Lake Street USA is a descendant of Walker Evans's Depression-era photos of the rural poor, the politically overcharged images of Robert Frank's The Americans, the work of Lewis Hine (and, hell, maybe even the class-conscious paintings of Daumier). But the lineage is not direct: Though Evans's work is considered the point of origin for much American photojournalism, the photographer never let his subjects write their own biographies. And Frank crisscrossed the continent, an immensely gifted tourist with a camera, never immersing himself in the lives he registered.

Perhaps the closest analogy is the Pittsburgh Project, which was undertaken in the years after WWII by a mercurial former battlefield photographer named W. Eugene Smith. In 1953, after quitting his job at Life magazine, Smith was commissioned by the citizens of Pittsburgh to produce 100 prints for the city's bicentennial celebration. Instead, he spent four years on the project, living in the city, scouring its streets and corners after dark, taking more than 11,000 exposures. He was fascinated, he later wrote in a letter, by what he called the "equilibriums of paradox": black and white, birth and decay, industrial and natural, present and past. When, near his death, he had published almost none of the photos--his New York home was wallpapered in the prints--Smith began to think of the Pittsburgh project both as his life's great work and his final failure. His friends believed that it had driven him mad.

According to Vince Leo, chair of media arts at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and a longtime friend of Huie's, though the Lake Street project may rise from the tradition of Evans and Smith, it is not necessarily beholden to it. "The photos betray Wing's true gift," he says, "which is to engage people in the photographic act. It's a media redemption in a way, when you look at how newspaper and TV stations go after subjects. Wing's photos are social acts. They're not simply representation, but arise from social interaction.

Teddy Maki

"The scale is important, [but] what's really different is the idea of a community documentary--that the community has a stake in its own representation. Throw in ideas about public art and unusual venues and you're almost there."

And this, finally, is what's remarkable about Lake Street USA. As Leo says, most public art takes a predesignated corner of the world at large and turns it into gallery space; Huie is hurling his art into the world from which it comes. It's a passionate overture that he hopes will inspire passionate engagement. Ideally, he says, people walking Lake Street will be exposed to lives they wouldn't otherwise encounter: East African immigrants in the Central neighborhood will come face to face with skate-punks from Bloom-Lake, and shoppers in Uptown will run into East African immigrants. They might stop to search the crowd for an open face, just as Huie did, and maybe, momentarily consider the uncommon ground we share.

But, Huie realizes, once the photos are installed he will have ceded all authority over their interpretation. And, perhaps appropriately, he has decided to give the entire exhibit back to the city when it comes down in October: the photos will be auctioned off, and the money will be funneled back to community groups.

He isn't sure what he'll do after that; he's been inside the work for so long, he says, that it's hard to think past it. He has ideas, though. He'd like to spend a few months photographing a single Minneapolis family. He's been thinking about an exhibit that would integrate his images with a collection of the family's personal effects--an anthropological catalog of modern life. He thinks he might like to travel the country taking pictures with his fiancée, whom he'll wed this autumn. America is changing, he says, and he'd
like to be there to
record it.

 

The morning of Friday, June 2 is moody and overcast. Two workers are up on scaffolding at the front of the former Sears building near the corner of Chicago and Lake, securing the first photo to the façade with a drill. Huie, who is dressed in a light denim jacket and carries a Polaroid camera over his shoulder, is being interviewed by a reporter from Minnesota Public Radio. Tenth Ward city council member Lisa McDonald stopped by a few minutes earlier to offer her congratulations, but for the most part no one is paying much attention to the installation. A bus grinds to a stop directly opposite the site, which is separated from the street by a six-foot-tall chain-link fence, and the people on board gaze at the photo with the middle-distance stare that we all adopt on public transportation.

The Sears building, which was rechristened the Great Lake Center in 1998, is the symbolic epicenter of the Lake Street USA project. It's a beachhead for Huie's invasion, which will begin in earnest later this month. The building itself is a fossil, in poor repair--the brick is pitted and gaps in the boarded-up windows are plugged with plastic--and monstrously out of scale with the neighborhood, like a skyscraper in a cornfield. The area around it has long been either ignored or maligned; indeed, the most conspicuous businesses here are a discount liquor store, a brutally modern Indian Services building, and a shabby Family Dollar. There is also a mosque next door, in the rear of a building occupied by a café and a beauty salon. As Huie finishes his interview, the parking lot begins to fill with taxis. The faithful are arriving for noon prayers.

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