Ooh La La!

'Alyson at Large' epitomizes the silent-movie drama of Piotrowski's vision
Timothy Piotrowski

Timothy Piotrowski is amply willing to die for his art--just not all at once. "I use this selenium toner," the photographer relates, stooping carefully to add yet another print to the show-and-tell stack already towering in his arms. "It's really nasty stuff, toxic as hell. You're not supposed to touch it or even inhale the fumes. But sometimes I have to sniff it to find out if it's good or not. I know it's gonna take eight years off my life. But the results are worth it."

In the big south Minneapolis upper duplex he shares with a friend, those results--Piotrowski's gelatin silver prints--are everywhere, complemented by a far-ranging collection of vintage originals. Framed photos cover every wall. Others, matted and neatly stacked, creep across hardwood floors. Smaller examples, along with cigarette cards, cabinet cards, naughty French postcards, and cartes de visite, lurk nearby. Nearly all celebrate the feminine, often in its most literal form. The brilliant early-evening light pouring through the windows, combined with the place's orderly density, gives it the air of a private museum.

You can't help but suspect that the artist's day gig has rubbed off on him. Senior security officer Piotrowski's 24 years at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts are bound to have provided more than a few preservation and display hints. He met the man he calls his "photography guru," master printer and longtime Robert Frank associate Sid Kaplan, there. Plus, he has the gravity of one charged with protecting rare and valuable materials. (In drag, he'd make a magnificent librarian.) But what his sharp, sandy brush cut and serious demeanor suggest most is a compact, tattooed update of Hjalmar Poelzig, the brilliant Satanist architect played by Boris Karloff in Edgar G. Ulmer's very loose 1934 adaptation of Poe's The Black Cat.

Unlike the fabulously wealthy Poelzig, Piotrowski doesn't have time for devil worship or casual human sacrifice, although he does share the architect's passion for Art Deco. He doesn't even shoot naked chicks exclusively. Reminiscent of Viennese naughtypants nabobs Atelier Manassé's earthier non-nude output, 1930's Hogdini Duo Aerial Cradle Wardrobe finds a member of local burlesque troupe Le Cirque Rouge perched on an upright box in the titular two-piece costume. The subject's hands, poised seductively behind her neck, seem about to unfasten something; her face, half in shadow, bears more than a hint of "Should I go through with this?" ambivalence. The nuanced interplay of light and shade provides the picture's dynamic. But the pulchritude makes for toothsome bait.

"At first, I got friends to model for me," he recalls, "then friends of friends. But I've gotten more particular in terms of matching models to my style. Ninety percent of the time, when you ask a woman if you can take her picture, immediately she thinks 'porn.' You might as well be saying 'Hi, I'm Jeffery Dahmer and I was wondering if I could add your head to the collection I keep in my refrigerator.'"

As he explains, once prospective models see his work, their reservations usually vanish. A stickler for historical detail, Piotrowski maintains a healthy flock of marcel-curled wigs, borrowing or trading costumes and props from local antique dealers. "While it's in a '30s style, there's no telling exactly how old that circus costume is," he notes. "Back then, performers used garments forever, updating them when changes in style demanded."

Given the size of his internal photo lore database, you'd never guess that he's only been at it for six years. Granted, he's been making art of one kind or another--mostly paintings and punk rock--since moving to Minneapolis from Chuck Lindbergh birthplace Little Falls in 1980. Like many local artists, he even attended MCAD briefly.

"In my second year," he says, "I had the opportunity to travel with a girlfriend to Europe, so I cashed out my student loan. Best decision I ever made in my life."

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