By Bill Hillmann
Seventy-one-year-old photographer Fred Burkhart is a photo-documentary artist who has focused on various marginalized groups over his forty-five-year career. He has documented the Summer of Love in California, S&M groups, the homeless, the Gay Pride movement and others. Burkhart says he’s taken hundreds of thousands of photos in his lifetime. Many artists like to boast that they’d die for their art; Burkhart almost did. He was working on a photo-documentary on the Klu Klux Klan in 1995. After they found out he didn’t support their beliefs the KKK beat him to near-death.
Burkhart isn’t just a photographer; he also paints, draws and writes poetry and prose. He even sings. Burkhart created an arts-community in his old home on Halsted near Diversey. He called it The Burkhart Underground and it ran from 1995 to 2009. It was a Beat Generation-inspired open-mic and gallery that nurtured generations of young Chicago artists including Andreas Kapsalis, Sabrina Chap and myself.
A few years ago Burkhart fell ill with prostate cancer. It didn’t stop him from winning a Windy City Story Slam All-City Championship. The cancer has worsened and spread into his bones; his diagnosis gives Burkhart one month to live. This past January 19, after four-and-a-half decades of taking photos, Burkhart had the very first solo photography opening of his career, at Alibi Fine Art gallery. It was a raucous success, with a line out the door for most of the evening.
I traveled to Burkhart’s home in Uptown recently to talk with my spitfire, old friend. He still looks like an urban wizard. If the doctors are correct this may be one of Burkhart’s last conversations with Chicago.
In the sixties, Fred Burkhart was living in New York and had a successful career as a Pop art painter, when he decided to move to Los Angeles.
In 1967 this art collector of mine out in Hollywood handed me a camera one day and said “Burkhart you should be a photographer.” It had a busted light meter but I just started shooting photos. It seemed like it was handed to me at the right moment because I was kind of tired of painting. I was starting to get commercially successful with the gallery. But it was time spent by myself thinking out my crazy thoughts and being this recluse artist. I had no contact with anybody except my own paranoid misgivings about everything. So when photography came along all of a sudden it put me in touch with people. And from that point on I wasn’t some loner, off by myself making the art. I was making the art with people. And that was what changed my whole perspective, my whole life as an artist because it was no longer my ideas. I had to forego my ideas, wipe my head clean like a blank slate and the person would impress their ideas on me. That’s how I got started as a photographer, but I was always an artist from day one. I think I came out of the womb that way with that vision but I didn’t know how to express it right then.
That situation led to some trouble…
I ended up in reform schools, prisons and jails, endless streets and in every marginalized community there was; even one’s that hadn’t been invented yet. Trying to find the place where I could express things.
Fairly early on Burkhart won a substantial arts grant.
I won a grant from the Ohio Arts Council but subsequently gave it back. I spent a thousand bucks of it and gave the eight thousand back because they didn’t want to let me into the treatment centers I wanted to go into and photograph. My whole idea was to feed back to people with film because I had a simple theory that everything is about relationships and the fact that somebody is in treatment for drugs or alcohol or some psychological problem, it’s the people in the patients’ lives who aided them into that situation, the doctors, the significant others, the drinking partners. I said “If I can get with that person and feed them back a positive image of themselves, they’ll look like a different person.” I’ll feed that to them.
Well the treatment centers said ‘naw you can’t do that.’ Well I happen to have known all the derelicts and fools in the treatment centers anyways. So subsequently I did the project on my own time and money, paid for the films, paid for the stuff, worked with the people, worked with young kids—bought ‘em little plastic cameras. I worked with the homeless trying to feed back a whole new image of the person.
You’re not that sick person the doctor keeps saying you are. The doctor is getting paid for saying that and you’re getting sick and you’re not that person your wife says or your husband says you are. You’re really a fully functioning person. You just gotta get with the right people who allow you to express yourself. That’s what happened to me. And that’s one way that I got out from under alcohol and drugs was to finally take hold of my own image of myself and saying it’s not gonna be what everybody else has determined. I am not this no-good drunk, this lousy juvenile delinquent—so many things people wanted to pigeonhole me in. I finally threw it all away and threw in my own image. I wanted to help people in treatment with that but like I say it was difficult. Eventually I did it on my own terms.
In the early 1970s, a horrible fire wiped out a huge chunk of Burkhart’s photography.
I started photographing approximately during the Summer of Love. All my work from 1967 to 1971, the fire destroyed all of it, hundreds and hundreds of rolls of film except for one-hundred negative strips. That’s the equivalent of twenty-five rolls of film. That’s nothing.
The destroyed photos were stuff from the Berkeley Riots, the hippie scene. Man, what a documentary that would have been, a history of a time.
Back then I was still in my head a demented artist, I didn’t see myself as a photographer until late 1978 or ’79. I said, “Wait a minute man, I’m not just a crazy painter.” I’ve looked at some of that stuff I had that didn’t get destroyed and I said, “wow!” So it didn’t hurt me so much when it happened now I think about it and I say, “whew!”
But then I think about seventy-one years of my life and a lot of that was lost in a sense, down streets I don’t even know where and have no recollection of. But then again all the forbidden streets and places I walked down, they really formed me and I wouldn’t backtrack any of that.
Burkhart spent a great deal of time focusing on the homeless.
I was almost always homeless even until recently. I never met my father, mother gone at two, adopted out at eight or nine, lived in the street for six or seven years one time, lived in the street another time for a year and a half. I’m talking about living in the street, not in homeless shelters, in abandoned buildings in Chicago, which is cold. I lived homeless in California for years but it was easier there. A lot of the street people were drugged and drunk which I was good at doing, I did it splendidly. So that was my connection.
It was easier to photograph in the street with some of these people ’cause you know they’d be laying there in the middle of the sidewalk laying in the alley “Yeah, Burkhart, my name’s Arthur but you can call me Art” and I clicked some pictures and said “Here’s some Art,” click. They’d be laying there saying “This is the best side I’ve got” and they would hand it to me.
Eventually Burkhart found himself photographing the KKK.
Some young Peaceniks were going to go picket a Klan rally. The kids said “Come on Burkhart we’re gonna picket these assholes and we want you with us.” I came with and they threw the kids out but they let me stay and they said “Yeah brother you wanta see the real thing come with us tonight.” I went and they had a big Klan meeting and then they invited me to a cross-lighting way out in the middle of a cornfield. I even roasted marshmallows at the foot of the burning cross.
So I was pretty much welcomed in. It wasn’t like I was undercover ’cause eventually a Klansman said “When you gonna join the Klan bro” and my reply was “I’m gonna join the Girl Scouts before I join you clowns” and boy oh boy those were fighting words. They locked me in a room, beat me real bad and nearly killed me. But the thing is, on a deeper level any marginalized community where I ever was whether it was photographing the Klan or the fetish groups or the heroin addicts, part of me could relate to it. Part of me was very angry and frustrated all my life. So I was thrown into a mix of people, the Klan who were really angry and frustrated and they nearly killed me as a result, locked me in a motel room and left me for dead.
Burkhart has a unique approach to photography.
I don’t take pictures, people give them to me. I don’t think you need to take a picture. People need to give you a picture and that involves them trusting you with their identity. They’re handing you the only tangible thing that a human being has which is their identity of themselves, who they think they are. It’s my job to feed them back something positive. It’s collaboration.
In the 1990s, Burkhart began to open the doors to his home on Halsted near Diversey to hundreds of young artists in what became the Burkhart Underground.
I started the Burkhart Underground because I was trying to fill a void in my life, an empty place in my stomach. I had a little daughter, Trinity Valentine. When she left I didn’t know what to do so I just opened my place up to everybody and everything and it was like every Sunday here where all the kids come home for the weekend and I just had to clean up for ‘em, see ya next weekend.
It was kind of like that but it was also a unique place because I don’t know if my own visions were faltering as an artist or needed to expand so by opening the Burkhart Underground all of a sudden I was the coffee-maker, I facilitated it. I went and got the equipment for open mic but it became a place where a lot of young people could come and express themselves. I remember when I was sixteen, I was in reform school and I couldn’t express myself. So here were kids that were that old and even going into college and all of a sudden it was theirs. They could come and socialize. It wasn’t a bar, they weren’t forced to drink or drug. Here was a place where kids could come and express themselves and be who they are and do their poetry and hang their artworks. So all the while that in itself was expanding my horizons as an artist.
It was also because I had built a place successfully and had my own darkrooms, my own gallery, my own place. It just seemed it was time to share that with others because nobody shared it with me when I was a young man. How much easier it might have been to move into who I am if there had been people saying, “Come on in here we’ll hang your artwork, we’ll do this.” At the same time it was filling a void in me wanting to build another family because the one I thought I had didn’t work, ya know, this little family of artists—the Burkhart Underground. But it was very stressful at the same time because I had to pay for everything, do everything, wash all the dishes and nobody ever helped no matter what they said, they never did. I was strapped with a whole lot of hassle with all that but at the same time it was a joy because I was also becoming a storyteller and started to tell my stories and host the open mic and become a comedian.
For me it was the first legitimate time that I ever fit into a community, always I was a juvenile delinquent, a derelict, a street person, an alcoholic, drug addict, a lecherous old man, you name it. I was all those things but all of a sudden I was legitimately part of a community. I was more or less respected as an artist or a teacher or a mentor.
During this era Burkhart broke his back.
I was on the top of a six-foot ladder, tiptoe, hanging a big wooden sign and down at my feet is this old black dude, a real troublemaker always walking around “you mothafuckin’ honkie” was rambling on about how he’ll kick the ladder out from under me and that’s when I lost my balance and fell. And I’m thinking “oh my god” and then the sign falls and hits me on the head and the black dude’s laughing and the anesthesiologist who lived across the parking lot is standing there not even asking if he can help me. Fortunately somebody called a good friend of mine and got me to the hospital ’cause I was ready to just go on with life as usual but they were like “Naw man, you got a serious break, a first lumbar.” I was partly in a body cast, this big tortoise-shell-looking thing. I was supposed to be in that body cast for nine months to a year. I tore it off in a month and a half and got to the hospital and they said “What happened to your cast?” I said “I threw that thing away” and they said “but a man your age!” and I said, “Yeah but a man my age would be in a walker the rest of his life if I keep that cast on.” The doctor said, “Well get over to therapy right away” and I said “I rode my bicycle over here, dude!”
An underground renaissance man.
I believe in all mediums. I work with film now, I work with digital, I work with drawing, painting, writing, performing, recording. I think that as many ways as you can get it out there, the better. It’s one more depth to your expression, one more dimension to what you’re trying to express. Your soul is here to communicate something and you can do a photo and you can also tell a story about that photo, the people in it, how you relate to them. There can be all kinds of stuff in the information there. Then you can turn around and do a drawing that brings out another dimension so I think that all of it adds up. It’s also the greatest thing to cure writer’s block. If you can’t write, you just go paint or move to another medium and I found that always when I couldn’t do certain things I’d start drawing and the drawings would be powerful. I haven’t drawn for several years and the past couple years I’ve worried about that. I’ve been frustrated like, man, I should be drawing! Then I’m thinking, wait a minute, I’ve installed this entire photo gallery downstairs of artworks. And my real work today is healing.
Burkhart hung out with several legendary artists over the years though he didn’t get along with Allen Ginsberg.
Ginsberg didn’t like me and I didn’t like him. I liked young girls and he liked young boys. He was really a snobbish dude. He’d call me a fucking pussy-licker and I called him a cocksucker. He didn’t have any use for me and I didn’t have any use for him.
Burroughs got along with Burkhart better.
Burroughs and I could sit in the same room and hang out.
Burkhart even rode on The Bus with Ken Kesey.
I wasn’t on the original bus because I wasn’t a joiner of anything and I certainly didn’t hang with the hippies. I hung more with the beatniks though I was a little younger. I was somewhere between the two but identified more with the Beat culture than I did with the hippie culture.
I’d seen Kesey off and on in the 1960s and the seventies but we never had more than a few words. I hooked up with him later when he got older. He was around touring. I just introduced my daughter and then we got really hooked up. Trinity and him became kind of tight and when he’d come to town we’d hang out together and have dinner together, and went on his bus.
Well, the bus was really a fabrication. It wasn’t the original bus, they rebuilt it, painted it. The old one was dead and rusted out so they drove that on tour and stopped at all the major cities. But unbeknownst to everyone, Kesey and all of them were riding an air-conditioned super-bus and then they’d hop out before they got to the city and get into the old bus and go around. So we traveled on it, we went all over Chicago driving around that thing and Trinity was a big guest. I remember one time we were on the bus, it was Mountain Girl’s birthday. She was this big, fat, offal of a woman. She screwed everybody and was trying to get Kesey’s and Jerry Garcia’s money after they died. Well, Trinity says, “Dad there’s a funny smell on this bus” ’cause they were smoking a joint and I said, “Trin that’s the smell of decaying hippies.” Mountain Girl jumps up and yells,”Who let you on the bus?” I said “The same ones who let you on the bus, lady,” and she said “You shouldn’t be on here,” like they were all self-respecting hippies. And the rest of the group, some were in suits and ties and were already way past that stuff. I said “Don’t worry lady I’m getting off at the first bus stop.” Oh me and Mountain Girl did not hit it off. But Kesey and I got along.
At the height of Jack Kevorkian’s controversial assisted-suicide campaign, Burkhart got a chance to meet and photograph him.
I got special entry to go to an opening of one of Kevorkian’s painting exhibitions and I took Trinity and hung out with Jack. I thought, that’s the greatest thing in the world, the guy’s a painter, because I didn’t pay any attention to the assisted-suicide stuff. Of course now I wouldn’t mind talking to him. I’ve signed papers like do-not-resuscitate, don’t put breathing tubes in me, don’t do any of this stuff which means, they’ll just let you starve to death and I think “what an inhumane way to go, they should kill you” and they say “oh we’re not here to kill you” but they’ll let you starve to death, which is totally bizarre. Because you know if I’m in some coma or catatonic state and can’t function anymore, let me go.
But I appreciated Jack on a different level. I was impressed that he was a painter. He was also a classically trained musician besides being Doctor Death.
Burkhart now lives in the Chelsea Hotel in Uptown. The first-floor cafeteria has evolved into his personal gallery.
It’s amazing being able to do that. I just came in and started hanging photos. I almost just took over the place and made it my studio and everybody’s got to fit in. Down there, there’s the Jesus People and up here, I call it the mausoleum, the senior-assisted housing. Technically that’s where I’m at but since I don’t buy lotto tickets and watch TV and play bingo, I made my friendships with the Jesus People. After a while I took a section in the dining room and pretty soon they started taking down other stuff. Next thing you know, it became my whole gallery.
It’s been interesting because only one other time in my life when I was with my daughter for nine years was I able to photograph somebody over and over and over and watch them grow. That’s happening here where I’m able to interact with so many people. When I did the Klan it was over a two-year period maybe. I saw them ten or twelve times. Here it’s like nonstop and they’re always saying “hey take our picture today” or, “click, click, click…” and it’s great because they just keep showing whole new sides of themselves and I’ve been very careful with this community not to feed back any negative stuff. Of course being in a house and watching people come together or fall apart ’cause it’s like anybody, they have their problems and sometimes people are fighting with each other or breaking down and I don’t point my camera at it because I don’t want to feed that back into the population.
I don’t discuss religion with them and that’s how I hang out with anyone, whether it’s the Klan or the Christians. I treat everyone as if they’re the same without judging them. I realized they all love their own families and they hate everybody else. I don’t discuss religion with the Christians, although they’re convinced that God sent me here and so am I.
Burkhart’s advice to a young photographer.
Get rid of your camera (grins). I don’t know what to tell a young person except to follow your own lead. Follow your soul. Which means ignore everything your parents tell you about who you can see and who you can’t and what politics you should have or what religion. Don’t listen to anything the schools tell you because they’re gonna dumb you down and rob you and turn you into shoppers and taxpayers. And get rid of anything the religions and the governments are trying to indoctrinate you with and search deep within yourself and then proceed. You gotta get rid of all the clutter and all the eye candy, everything that’s pulling you this way and that including your friends. If I’d a listened to my friends I’d be working for an American greeting-card company or something. What lame ideas…
You gotta delve deep within yourself and that’s not a pleasant journey because you usually alienate yourself from everybody and everything and especially things that are contemporary because you’re trying to search out something that maybe isn’t even going on yet, especially true creators and masters. They are evolving whole new disciplines, whole new ways of thinking and seeing. Whether it’s through a telescope or a digital camera or a mathematics. So you might be really isolating yourself by going after it; but it’s worth it.
The cancer today, it’s been a power influence in my life. I live pretty stress-free. I’m ninety-nine-percent organic. I get up every day, build my immune system and choose life. And of course with the cancer for me it’s like a defense mechanism. It’s saying to me “You know you really did it this time Burkhart and if you don’t change your life you’re dying” and I said “I got it, I got it.” Until I heal, forget trying to draw more or photograph more, so now I’m working on healing and then I’ll get back to whatever it is that’s next.
Burkhart will be telling the stories behind his photographs on February 23 at Alibi Fine Art, 1966 West Montrose, where his solo show of photographs runs through March 23.