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Monday, December 3, 2007

Jason Bitner: A Look Back at LaPorte, Indiana

LaPorte, Indiana Author and Found Magazine Co-Founder Jason Bitner

"Jason Bitner has made it a habit of picking up after us, walking down the back alleys of our lives, and accumulating all that we've thrown away or mislaid."- Alex Kotlowitz, from the Foreword of LaPorte, Indiana

For those unfamiliar with Illinois native Jason Bitner, he is the co-founder of the community art project Found Magazine. He, along with partner in crime Davy Rothbart, have given the world an intimate look into the lives of others through people’s grocery lists, diary entries, photographs, and other artifacts that have been found on the street, in thrift shops, library books, and garbage cans. You name, they accept it.

While all of the finds over the years have been important to both Bitner and Rothbart, Bitner would stumble across his most significant find to date in the small town of LaPorte, Indiana. Located west of South Bend, on the Michigan border, LaPorte boasts a population of just over 110,000. While on his way to the LaPorte County Fair and demolition derby, Bitner and his friend stopped unassumingly at B & J’s American Cafe. Waiting for a delicious order of homemade cinnamon rolls, Bitner noticed some beautiful black and white photos taped to one of the diner’s glass display cases. When he inquired about their origin, he was pointed to a back room containing 18,000 portrait proofs from one of the town’s old photographers, Frank Pease of Muralcraft Studios. Pease, who passed away in the early 70’s, had kept all of his proofs. After his death they were locked in storage for years, eventually making their way to the backroom of B & J’s. Overwhelmed by his discovery, Bitner made it his mission to sort through each one of the 22 boxes of photographs in search of the cream of the crop. Priced at $.50 a piece, he would eventually take home 350 proofs.

The end result of this adventure is Jason Bitner’s book LaPorte, Indiana, where his favorite portraits are lovingly laid out to help recreate the experience of sorting through the photos in the back of B & J’s. The response to the book has been overwhelming, and in many ways, both Jason Bitner and Frank Pease have turned into unintentional historical preservers for the town of LaPorte. Read on and find out the back story of this visually stunning work and the impact it has had on its creator.

DJ Sorce-1: I’m from Bloomington, Indiana, so there is a special place in my heart for LaPorte, Indiana. I really like the back story and I think it’s one of the most unique books I’ve ever seen in terms of its content and layout. When I bought it I was expecting a lot more text, but you chose to let the photographs speak for themselves. Did the final version of La Porte come out the way you had originally intended it to.

Jason Bitner: Yeah. I imagined it to look exactly how it came out. It actually turned out a little better than I was expecting. The main thing I wanted to convey was that there were all these amazing portraits that were leftover from another period in time. The photographer who took them was this guy Frank Pease, who passed away in 1970. I’m just the guy who stumbled across them. I didn’t feel it was my place to comment too much on the photographs, the process, or the people in the photographs because a lot of them were anonymous. What I wanted to do was recreate the experience of happening upon these photographs and letting them retain some mystery. They’re so beautiful that they don’t need text to go with them. The book is all about the photographs. So I wrote a quick essay about where they came from and what we know about them. But ultimately I wanted to let the viewer go through the pictures and be as enthusiastic about them as I was.

Frank Pease ad from an old LaPorte Herald-Argus

DJ Sorce-1: I think with a lot of found items people’s initial instinct is to think, “What spin can I put on this?” I like LaPorte because it shows that you don’t need to put any spin on these pictures, you can just present them as they were found.

Jason Bitner: Yeah, I think you’re right. I’m from outside of Chicago, about an hour and a half away from LaPorte. I’m really proud of Midwestern culture. I love it. I think it’s fantastic, but we get shit on all the time by people from both coasts. I wanted to make a book that was earnest, straightforward, and let Midwestern culture speak for itself. There was no reason to put some goofy spin on the pictures. I saw the book as a yearbook of the Midwest back in the 1950’s and 60’s.

DJ Sorce-1: I imagine you have some personal favorites out of all of the photos. One of my favorites is the picture of an old man fixing another old man’s tie. There is something so classic and moving about that picture.

Jason Bitner: There is. It’s a totally quiet and intimate moment between these two men. To this day I still don’t know who they are and what their relationship is. It’s one of the only real candid moments in the book. Everything else is really posed and kind of perfect. But that is one of the pictures where the photographer just grabbed a shot in between shots, or it was an accidental photograph. During these sittings people were doing eight to ten portraits per sitting. The film was expensive. There would be a proof of each photograph after it was taken. The photo of the two old men seems to be one that would never be purchased by the people in the photograph. But, that’s what I had to work with. I had all the proofs. There were 18,000 photographs B & J’s American Cafe. In theory, probably 2,000 of them were ever printed as final pictures.

DJ Sorce-1: How many photographs did you buy from B & J’s American Cafe initially?

Jason Bitner: Initially I thought I was going to just write a magazine article about the photos. I chose 20 pictures and sent them to a friend of mine who’s an editor. He was like, “These things are fantastic but you missed the deadline.” I started to feel like I needed to get back there and spend some more time looking through the pictures. I ended up staying at a friend’s farm that was five or ten miles away from the diner. I spent three weeks waking up every day and going over there.

B & J's Famous Cinnamon Rolls

During the course of the three weeks I just flipped through a pile every day. At the end of the three weeks I bought 350 pictures. They were 50 cents each, so I paid 175 bucks for an amazing collection of photographs. Once I had those I put them in a box and brought them to Princeton Architectural Press in New York City. I opened up my box and laid them down on the table and the people there were like, “Oh my god. This looks like my aunt. This looks like an old school teacher.” They were trading them across the table to one another like they were trading cards. Within 15 or 20 minutes they were like, “Yeah, I think we kind of have to make a book. This is perfect.”

Jason with B & J's American Cafe owners Billie and John Pappas

DJ Sorce-1: It seems like the concept of LaPorte would be a tough sell. It’s cool that the publishers immediately grasped the genius of your project.

Jason Bitner: Yeah, I think they liked that everything about it was really simple. The story of how I came across the pictures was easy to write up. One of the things we found most difficult was getting the photos to print right. We had everything printed as duotones, and we were trying to get as close to the originals as we could in term of size and appearance. That way the photos end up being more like artifacts than some big blown up portrait. I think we had three test printings, and on the last one they nailed it. If you compare the original pictures side by side with the book, it’s really close. And that’s something I wanted to share with people. I wanted to share the experience of flipping through a bunch of random photos.

DJ Sorce-1: Were you ever worried that your appreciation for the photos might not translate to the buying public?

Jason Bitner: Well, it’s not like I was making a Hollywood movie (Laughs). Most photo books don’t sell incredibly well. The idea of the book was to share a small piece of Midwest culture. The photographs in this book really transcend the town. Every town in America has a collection of pictures like this somewhere. With the release of my book, I’m hoping to see more of these books come out from places like California or Arkansas. Old photo archives like the one from LaPorte exist everywhere. Any town where there is a photographer who has been working for 15-20 years, there is huge stacks of proofs. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there are gonna be more of these things coming out.

DJ Sorce-1: Do you think you’re going to make a sequel book or project?

Jason Bitner: I don’t want to jinx myself, but after the book was released, I ended up meeting 20 to 30 people who were children pictured in the book who are now in their 50’s. I think the next project is going to be a film based on people who were in the photos, giving a contemporary portrait of LaPorte while using the photos as a jumping off point. It’s a real natural next progression for the project. I’m looking for money right now and I have a group of people who are set up to work on it. I’m really excited about it. I already know what it looks like and what it sounds like. The only thing I’m waiting for is the spring. I’d like for the spring to be in bloom while we’re shooting.

I haven’t really thought about doing another book. The number of people going to B & J’s since the book came out has gone up dramatically from people going there to look at the photos. 17,300 photos are still there for anyone to check out. That’s pretty cool. Hopefully now that people know this really cool experience is in LaPorte, Indiana, they’ll take their own road trip out there.

DJ Sorce-1: You and Davy Rothbart have a really curious ability to find the relevance of stuff that everyone else passes up. A lot of people that walked into that diner would have just ignored those boxes of proofs.

Jason Bitner: Yeah, those photos had been sitting there for over ten years before I discovered them. I don’t think there is anything special about either one of us. I’m not particularly skilled at anything. I’m not a good writer or musician, but I kind of know how to edit things. Given big collections of things I’m pretty good at saying yes and no to the ones I like and the ones I don’t. We both just have a natural curiosity. That’s what it comes down to. I went to Montessori school for kindergarten, so maybe that’s it. (Laughs)

DJ Sorce-1: Looking back on LaPorte, how has it changed your life and what is the most memorable experience you’ve had since you started working on it.

Jason Bitner: I have two stories. After Frank Pease and his wife passed away, all of the photos went into storage. They sat there for 15 years. Finally the owners of B & J’s brought them out and put them on display for sale. I had always heard that there was supposed to be a granddaughter of Frank’s who was still alive. She was supposed to be the only surviving family member. I really wanted to get a hold of her to make sure it was cool that we were going to publish the photos. We tried really hard for a long time to get a hold of her, and we couldn’t find her.

After the book came out, I got this phone call from a woman named Jerry Gift. She said, “Hi Jason, my name’s Jerry Gift, and I’m Frank Pease’s granddaughter. I wish I could give you a hug right now because this means so much to me that you printed my grandfather’s photographs in this book. My daughter and I are the only relatives of Frank, and there aren’t a whole lot of people carrying on his legacy. He was an amazing man and everyone loved him, but there aren’t too many people now who remember him. By putting this book together you’ve really brought him back to life for me.”

The book got people talking about her grandparents in a way that sort of brought her family back to her in the present day. We had a book release party in LaPorte, and she came up and gave me a huge hug. I just thought I was making a little book, and for it to mean that much to a family member of the man who took the pictures in the book was really cool. It was a totally unintended consequence. Oftentimes when you do something that is earnest and real, it resonates in amazing ways with people you didn’t know you were going to touch.

Gladys and Frank Pease

Later that same night, after the release party, me and my friends ended up at a nearby hotel. There was a hot tub there, so we had a huge hot tub party where everyone got drunk and had a great time. It was about 4:30 am, and me and my friend David from Chicago decided that we were hungry. We knew there was a Taco Bell nearby, and it was the only thing that was going to be open. The only thing that’s open that late is the drive thru, but we obviously couldn’t drive. So we were standing at the drive through trying to get their attention so we could get some nachos. They kind of let us sit there for a while and then finally let us order. We were obviously drunk and everyone working there was laughing about it.

So we got our food, and we’re walking back to the hotel. It was election season and we passed an election sign of someone running for judge. The judge’s name was Hardon, so the sign said something like, “Vote for Judge Hardon”, and there was a big gavel on the sign. The handle of the gavel stuck out right through the middle of the sign. The hammer was like two balls, and then the handle was like this huge cock. So it said, “Vote for Hardon”, with a huge erection going through the middle of the sign. Someone had to be fucking with this poor guy. It was like the guy doing the graphic design was working for his opponent. We started laughing about how ridiculous it was, and decided that we had to take it.

David grabbed the sign and we started walking again. All of a sudden a cop car pulls over. The cops were like, “So boys, what’s going on here. Looks like you’re tampering with an election sign.” We were drunk and laughing and they were like, “This isn’t funny, this is a really serious issue. Let me see your ID’s.” At the time I had a Chicago license and the cops were like, “What are a couple of Chicago guys doing in LaPorte?” So we explained how we went to get food and saw this ridiculous sign. The cop kind of half smiled, but soon after there was another cop car driving up. There are two cop cars with sirens flashing, and they were really trying to intimidate us. David kept saying, “Look, it’s got a huge cock on it. Do you see this…the gavel looks like a huge dick.”

Finally they both said, “Tell us what you’re doing in town.” I started explaining about the book and all the photos I found and the first cop to arrive was like, “What!? You’re the guy who found those photographs? Dude, put my photo in the next book.” Then he said, “I think the book is great. Just give us back the sign and there are no problems here.” It was very nice; we got let off the hook. But before we did, I had to promise if I made another book that guys photo was going in.

To find out more about this great book, visit the website by clicking here. And yes, there is a MySpace page as well. Visit it by clicking here.

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