Photo blogs give the arts a dose of reality

"I stopped looking for the most colorful and odd and just went to anyone I would come across on a bench. I don't even see this as a photography blog anymore — it's about storytelling, looking for any story. (The photos often come with a short bit of explanatory text.) It started with me going out every day for eight hours; now it's a few hours a day; that way I can talk to people more."

Which doesn't sound so far from Studs Terkel.

The legendary Chicago radio personality and historian set a precedent for this contemporary impulse for documenting how people are. His book "Division Street: America," a landmark collection of everyday interviews, was as much an act of sociopolitical field-leveling — the unheralded and unappreciated treated with the same thoughtfulness as the rich and elected — as it was a postwar portrait of America.

David Isay founded StoryCorps 10 years ago this month for National Public Radio. The project — which consists of ordinary people walking in off the street to record 40 minutes of conversation — has provided the Library of Congress with more than 50,000 oral histories.

"The first StoryCorps audio booth was in Grand Central Station in New York, and I remember that when Studs cut the ribbon on that booth, he gave a speech about how we all know who the architects of the building are, but we should be sure not to forget to tell the stories of the workers who 'laid the floors' and 'built the walls,'" Isay said.

And yet StoryCorps was never meant to serve as a commentary on authenticity in media, Isay said: "It came from a realization that the simple act of listening to another person can remind someone that their life has had an impact. Really, it's the opposite of reality TV, which is supposedly about unadorned life. Nobody comes to StoryCorps to be famous — besides, we've learned that phoniness on audio is very transparent."

Guilelessness is key.

When Benault tells about working up the nerve to stop Chicagoans and ask them to pose for Humans of Chicago, she describes "a city where everyone has headphones on their ears and smartphones in their faces, but take the time to talk to them, they're almost always happy to share something about themselves." Asked if he is flattered by the exponential growth of websites that document pedestrians or annoyed by all the competition in a field that, online, at least, he helped pioneer, Schuman is generous:

"I run into people doing exactly what I am doing. Oh, yeah. All the time," he said. "But who they are influenced by — by me, "Humans of New York," (New York Times fashion photographer) Bill Cunningham — matters less than having that reassurance that there are lots of people right now, in different ways, documenting the world."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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