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Mike Evangelist's downtown Minneapolis images bring the '70s to life

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The new book Downtown: Minneapolis in the 1970s, featuring the photos of Mike Evangelist and text by Andy Sturdevant, began as an experiment in street photography over 40 years ago. As a teenager from New Brighton, Evangelist was already consumed by photos. He also happened to have a job working at the downtown Minneapolis post office, with time to kill between arriving downtown and having to punch the clock.

The visual record of just how he filled these hours is now ours to behold. His photos roughly cover 1972 to 1974, and reveal vibrant street life unknown to many today. City Pages talked to Evangelist about the origin of his collection of over 650 images, which eventually became the impetus for his book and Mill City Museum's latest exhibition.

How do you see your photos? Are they primarily art or historical artifacts?

Mike Evangelist: Personally, I view them as art. I created them as art, but as my private art. They were experimental. I was learning how to be creative and how to interact with my world. I never thought other people would see them, but then technology changed and I was able to start scanning the negatives and sharing the images online. It was through other people’s big reactions to them, on my Facebook page and then through the Old Minneapolis Facebook page, that I realized they were also interesting as historical documents.

How did you get into photography as a teenager?

ME: I was influenced by Time Life Books. There was a set you could get on photography, and I bought it with money I made on a paper route. They were full of photos, but also contained all kinds of information on equipment and techniques. I also had Life Magazine and Look, which would come out with these fantastic photographs every week. Eventually, I started taking photos for my high school yearbook and newspaper, and then on the streets of Minneapolis.

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One of the most poignant photos in the book is of a man sleeping on the ground in front of the old downtown library. What do you remember about that shot?

I’d never seen anything like that before — I just had no understanding of it. It was not within my suburban experience. I thought he was a really old guy, but now I look at him and realize he was probably in his 30s. I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older that my reasons for making photos are to try to own a piece of an experience I’ve had and preserve it. I would take a photo and take it home with me. I could refer to it and it made things more tangible.

Did you ever ask for permission to take any of your photos?

Once in a while I would ask for permission, but usually only if it was a cute girl, because I wanted an excuse to talk to her. I was very shy, so taking photos was my way of interacting with the world without interacting with people. Downtown just seemed so grimy and exciting and sexy to me. What I wanted were images of what was happening at a particular moment and I didn’t necessarily want or need people to acknowledge the camera.

What do you think of downtown Minneapolis today?

I’ve had a change of opinion on it recently. I still go downtown to shoot and I used to think, “This is awful. All the good stuff is gone.” Nicollet Mall used to be a flurry of activity — it was all shops from end-to-end. Now there are no little shops. It’s lost that visceral, visual thing it used to have. But now I think downtown is still vibrant but in different ways. There are people there, but just doing different things. And, of course, there is a completely separate world going on one story up in the skyways.

What do you think about the skyway system, which didn’t exist when you were a teenager?

I have mixed feelings. They changed the complexion of the city so much. I’ve spent time in there, and I see that some of the things that used to happen in the street are now happening in the skyway. Our society has changed culturally — what I used to do taking photos is not acceptable to people [today]. Businesses will come outside and tell you that you can’t take photos. I was taking photos in Crystal Court in the IDS Tower, and a security guard came over and told me I couldn’t take photos. How can you not take photos in one of the key tourist attractions of downtown Minneapolis?

Why do you think there is so much nostalgia for the 1970s right now?

In my own case, I’m closer to the end of things than I am to the beginning, and the '70s were when I became a person. I don’t necessarily think it was so much better than now, but I do think things were simpler. There were five TV channels. If you went to work or school it was a given that you’d watched the same programs the night before, as the people you saw and you could all talk about it. There were a lot of shared experiences.

However, the photos themselves are now a shared experience. Even though they’re my work, they would not be in a book if other people hadn’t been excited about them. People seem to want to talk about them and about that time.

IF YOU GO:

Downtown: Minneapolis in the 1970s

There will be a book launch and exhibit opening celebration with Mike Evangelist and Andy Sturdevant Thursday, November 12 from 6 to 9 p.m.

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Free

Mill City Museum

There will be presentations at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.