La Porte Lost and Found | Book Review | Chicago Reader

La Porte Lost and Found 

Jason Bitner's book of photos from a small-town portrait studio has had surprising reach.

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Acouple of months ago Mary Ann Poczekay's daughter gave her a copy of LaPorte, Indiana she'd found on Amazon. Named for Poczekay's hometown, it's a collection of found photographs, formal studio shots taken in La Porte in the 50s and 60s. As Poczekay flipped through the pages, she saw not only a lot of familiar faces but, about halfway through, her own senior portrait: she was wearing a cashmere sweater and a string of pop beads, her wide eyes focused on some indeterminate point. Twenty-eight pages later she came across a picture of her pal Pat Rymer Orzech. They'd been best friends in high school, and both still live in northwest Indiana--Poczekay in Michigan City, Orzech in Demotte--but don't see each other often. Poczekay wondered whether her old friend knew about the book, and shot her an e-mail.

Published in April by Princeton Architectural Press, LaPorte, Indiana has already brought a number of people together. The book is the brainchild of Jason Bitner, one of the creators of Found magazine and its naughty spin-off, Dirty Found. (Found celebrates the release of Found II: More of the Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items From Around the World Friday, June 2, at Intuit.) Both magazines are collections of lost or discarded notes, letters, Polaroids, to-do lists, homework, birthday cards, doodles on napkins, you name it. Bitner is a professional finder, and in July 2003 he happened upon what may be the find of his life. He was on his way from Chicago to the La Porte County fair when he and a friend stopped for a bite at B & J's American Cafe, a diner on the main drag of the county seat. In its back room, jammed onto two tall stacks of industrial shelving, were box upon box of old photographs, proofs, and negatives.

In the mid-20th century, the space had been home to Frank Pease's Muralcraft Studios. When he died in 1970, he left behind some 18,000 photos--a comprehensive archive of the town's everyday life. The owners of the building, John Pappas and his wife, Billie, found the trove in an upstairs apartment in the late 80s and stuck the cache in storage. But after they rehabbed the diner in the early 90s they decided to make the photos available to townspeople. They set them out in the back room and put up a sign: "Find a family member! Photos $.50 each or $5.00 for a packet." They didn't do much to publicize the collection, but word got around and people started stopping by, looking for baby pictures, graduation photos, family portraits, and engagement announcements.

By the time Bitner showed up, the photos had been on offer for nine years. John and Billie had sold a handful, but few outside La Porte knew of their existence. Enthralled, Bitner came back almost every day for the next two weeks to sift through them, and eventually he bought about 300. "At first I thought the photos would make a great magazine article," says Bitner. "And the more I looked at them, something told me it could be much more than that--like a great yearbook of the midwest."

The La Porte volume is warmer in tone and more conceptually consistent than the Found books, whose sense of slice-of-life discovery is served with a sometimes unsettling dose of voyeuristic glee. Essentially text free, save for Bitner's introduction and a foreword by Alex Kotlowitz, LaPorte, Indiana is a rich anthology of midcentury hairdos and eyewear, page after page of citizens young and old, dressed for posterity and doing their darnedest to relax. Pease had operated Muralcraft with his wife, Gladys, who hand-colored prints, ran the office, greeted clients, and helped them with their hair and makeup. Pat Orzech remembers being really nervous before her graduation photo, but "Gladys and Frank put you at ease," she says. And though the photos themselves are undistinguished--all have the same neutral background, the same unsurprising poses--collectively they convey a lost moment in time.

"The power of these photographs lies not in their art or their candor," writes Kotlowitz, "but rather in their self-consciousness. They're remarkable for what they say about our desire to be seen in a certain light: twirling a baton, sniffing a rose, deep in thought, laughing, flirtatious. It's as if the photographer said to them: let me see you as you see yourself."

Says John Pappas: "I guess it took an outsider to point out what we had here."

After Mary Ann Poczekay e-mailed Orzech about the book, she and her husband came over from Demotte, about 40 miles away, and spent five days sifting through the boxes in the back of B & J's. Orzech was looking for the rejected proofs for her engagement and wedding pictures. She never found them, but she did locate photos of her older sister, friends from grade school, and other relatives--about 25 people in all.

On a Friday in April, Bitner, who now lives in New York, threw a book release party at B & J's, and Orzech and her husband came back for that, hoping to reconnect with others from their past. But as she pointed out, leafing through the book, "I recognize the people, but I can't put the names to the faces." Plus only a handful of those in the book came to the party, though other interested parties were on hand: the mayor of La Porte, the Pappases, the Peases' granddaughter Jari Gift, two dozen other locals, and a handful of Bitner's friends from Chicago. Voices clanging around the tin-ceilinged diner, they drank beer and noshed on miniwraps, cookies, and veggies with dip. In the back room, people rifled through the boxes of photos, occasionally giggling or shouting as they came upon a good find.

Tom Rogers, who grew up in La Porte and had returned for his father's birthday, popped in. As the news director at WILL AM radio in Champaign, he'd seen the book lying around after Bitner came in to plug it. Rogers made a beeline for the back room, and not 15 minutes later was back at the register, shaking his head, holding a photo of a sweet-faced, dark-haired teenager. "I figured I'd look through a box or two and see if I knew anyone," he says. "And literally the first photo I saw was of my aunt Janet." He gave John Pappas 50 cents, then disappeared into the back room again.

Even locals unconnected to the book have been drawn into the excitement surrounding it. After the party, some folks ate dinner at the I Street Family Tavern, where a waitress and one of the owners pored over the book, triumphantly identifying the happy couple in one engagement photo as Hugh and Kathy Tonagel, who now have four sons, all local basketball stars.

Later that night, after a series of shenanigans involving a bottle of Maker's Mark, a long walk to Taco Bell, and the petty theft of a campaign sign, the book got Bitner and a friend out of a jam. Hiking back to their motel from Taco Bell, they were stopped by the La Porte police, who checked their IDs. One cop wondered aloud what two out-of-towners were doing wandering La Porte at 3 AM.

"Well," said Bitner, "I put together this book, see, and tonight was the party--"

The cop cut him off: "You that guy from the diner?"

After a bit more discussion, Bitner and his friend were waved on their way on two conditions. One, that the pilfered signage be returned. And two, that Bitner promise to include the officer in his next book.

Found Magazine and PostSecret

When: Fri 6/2, 7 & 9 PM

Where: Intuit, 756 N. Milwaukee

Info: 312-243-9088

Price: $2-$5 suggested donation

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.

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