Custom Printing | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Custom Printing 

In 1995 photographer Mark DeBernardi became the manager of the custom printing house Lab One, on West Adams, and his annoyance with some of his clients helped him find his own style. "I was the front person for dealing with people who were unhappy with their prints," he says. "We had photographers who had never printed and were looking for better prints than could be produced from their negatives. They would give me out-of-focus negatives and say, 'Can't you make them sharper?' It made me want to do the opposite of what I was doing for everybody else." He started stepping on his own images, using the wrong developer, adding stains and creases. "It really was a release for me after these eight-hour days of making perfect prints," he says.

He's still altering his negatives and prints. His 30 photos of Illinois landscapes at Flatfile have dots of black acrylic paint that were inspired by defects in old prints, and he's added charcoal to the blacks and grays to make them look richer and wetter. And he's sanded the surface of the prints to make them more tactile.

DeBernardi used vacation time to photograph, mostly in Mexico, Central America, and Thailand. Four years ago his father, then 78, decided to return to his own mother's village in Italy. "No one in his family had gone back," says DeBernardi, who went along. "We found relatives living on the farm that my grandmother grew up on. Then when my son was born in 2001 I started thinking about Illinois, where he will be raised, and the idea of roots. I decided I wanted to do a little body of work for my son about Illinois."

As DeBernardi got into his research he was surprised at the history he discovered. The steel plow John Deere invented here in 1837 made it much easier to farm Illinois soil, and a print in this exhibit, John Deere's Workshop, shows the building that was erected over the excavated site of the workshop and what DeBernardi describes as "this rather bad sculpture of John Deere" in the yard. In many prints buildings seem out of place: Havana Power Plant (Neteler Mounds) shows a smoke-spewing complex that's built on a Native American burial site. He was fascinated by the canal in Illinois & Michigan Canal, which had been made obsolete by the railroads only six years after its completion, and his image is a seductive invitation to travel down it. Other images show the sites of disasters such as coal mine fires (darkened with actual coal dust) and sunken boats.

DeBernardi, who's long been photographing with cheap plastic cameras, got interested in them in the first photo class he took at Ohio University, where he was required to use one. "I loved the look," he says. "If anything was really in focus it would be the center, and the edges would fall off. I later used them for travel pictures, photographing a lot of landscapes with rusted machinery and crumbling statues, beaches with shredded palm trees. I was drawn to broken nature, places we've ruined."

DeBernardi grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb, and he thinks a childhood spent playing outdoors accounts for his interest in landscapes, though nothing lived in the river that ran behind his family's house. "It was orange because of seepage from old coal mines--the mud on the bank was orange," he says. "We'd swim, and our underwear would come out bright orange." At 18 he took a job at US Steel for a year. "I worked in a pit under where they used beads to polish steel, shoveling up the ones that dropped. The beads were raining down on you, and you would blow your nose after being there ten minutes and your snot was black. Most of the old-timers were missing part of a finger at the very least." That river and that job are sources of two recurring themes in his work--the split between humans and nature and the unintended consequences of the things we build. He says he's also inspired by his father's work as a bricklayer and carpenter: he designed and built his own furniture and fireplaces--the one in the family home was made from stones he collected on the property--and he never repeated a design. Similarly, DeBernardi's photos are sold in editions of ten but each print is unique.

Mark DeBernardi

When: Through 8/18

Where: Flatfile, 217 N. Carpenter

Info: 312-491-1190

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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