Photographer Shares His “Taxicab Diaries”

By Delia O’Hara / Staff Reporter / Chicago Sun-Times

Even the ducks look lonesome in the black-and-white photographs in “Taxi Cab Diaries,” an exhibit now on display at the Apollo Theater.

Photographer William Purvis was driving a cab at the time he began shooting the series in 2003, a job he says offered “an exciting element of surprise. I never knew where a passenger was going to take me.”

At first, Purvis says, “I would see things while I was driving and I would say to myself, ‘I wish I had a camera.'” After a while, he bought one, a Nikon.

“At the time, I didn’t know what an aperture was,” says Purvis, who now teaches world history and special education at Wendell Phillips Academy High School on the Near South Side.

“I really wanted to capture the changing neighborhoods I saw from my cab,” Purvis says. “I lived in Wicker Park in the 1990s and I regretted not having a camera at the time.”

Purvis, who started driving a cab in 1997, may have “change” as his theme, but he also captures an almost post-apocalyptic sense of isolation in a city that could only be Chicago. One of the most arresting of the 13 images in “Taxi Cab Diaries” shows a lone duck swimming toward a bridge as an L train crosses over the Chicago River; another shows a figure riding his bicycle through a desolate six-corner intersection, the Sears Tower a smudge in the background.

“For not having studied, Purvis is pretty amazing,” says Debra Hatchett, founder and executive director of the Anatomically Correct Gallery, which exists on the Internet and in shows like the one at the Apollo Theater.

Seventeen years ago, Hatchett hit on the idea of using the often unadorned walls of theaters to mount art shows. As time went on, when she could, she co-ordinated the art thematically with the theater’s current production. She has worked with many theaters around town, including Steppenwolf and the Goodman. The theater gets an ever-changing conversation-starter on its walls; artists get a short, intense burst of exposure Hatchett says has boosted careers.

As for Purvis, who came to Chicago from Charlottesville, Va., in 1990 to pursue a career as a blues and soul musician, he is increasingly taking his photography off the street, “to work in the studio a little more.”

But he won’t soon forget the thrill of “driving up to a certain spot, and an instinct tells you it’s something worth capturing — not the busy streets where everybody is push, push, but that isolated moment when somebody is standing by himself and I get therealization that the area won’t be the same.”

“It’s a fleeting moment,” Purvis says. “You take out thecamera and fire away and hope you get something right.

Chicago Sun-Times 9/12/08