The fish vendors held on as long as they could at the old market house, even as construction workers gutted the red-brick building to make way for an entertainment center, and young City Paper photographer Jim Burger caught the last days of a Baltimore institution en route to oblivion.
Burger shot the building shell left standing on Market Place, the men hosing the floor and rolling hand trucks through the space, a close-up of fish packed into a box — all before the vendors decamped to the market in Jessup, and Burger also went on his way. From his first photography job at City Paper he moved to The Baltimore Sun, then to working on his own, years spent catching images that he thinks of as “love notes” in a continuing romance with Baltimore.
“Baltimore has been very good to me,” says Burger, who moved to the city from the Pittsburgh area to study at the Maryland Institute College of Art in the late 1970s. “I was a stranger here and it took me in.”
A record of the love affair unfolds in countless Burger photographs, 134 of which will be on display for six weeks at the Creative Alliance starting on Saturday, Oct. 13. The show is called “Jim Burger: A Charmed Life” because that’s how Burger sees his experience since he left home in Uniontown, Pennsylvania and headed for Baltimore to study art.
Burger, who turns 58 days before the show opens, took to the city and found his groove in shifting from an illustration to a photography concentration at MICA. He loved the work, and the jobs followed. He says he never seriously considered going back to Pittsburgh, or anywhere else.
“Everything has gone my way,” Burger says.
As did a key decision the curators made to mount the show in the main gallery on the Creative Alliance’s ground floor at the old Patterson Theater on Eastern Avenue. That gallery is usually reserved for group exhibitions, but the artist in this case merits his own showcase, says Gina Caruso, Creative Alliance’s executive director.
Caruso says she’s drawn to Burger’s blend of newspaperman and art photo- grapher, ironic detachment and aesthetic engagement. The man has range. “He can do so many kinds of photo- graphy really well,” says Caruso, who chose the images along with Jeremy Stern, the Alliance’s exhibition and programs manager, with some help from Burger himself. “In his landscape photography, it’s really superior work, it’s stunning,” and yet “he’s got that old newspaper guy thing going on, which I really love. He revels in it. You can see it in his work.”
Indeed, even while immersed in the fine-arts world of MICA, Burger plunged into a universe that was more Weegee than Weston. For his MICA senior thesis, required to be an intense study of one subject, he spent a year photographing the Baltimore City Fire Department.
“Inexplicably, I chose the Baltimore City Fire Department … a topic about which I knew absolutely nothing,” Burger wrote in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue. The chief and public relations person took a “serious leap of faith,” Burger wrote, handing him “a helmet, boots, turnout gear, and run of the department. This was right at the end of the era where a civilian could sign a waiver and ride on fire apparatus. I have no idea how I didn’t get killed.”
That was the closest thing to news photography he had done up to that point, and it helped him cross the bridge from fine arts to journalism. From MICA he went to the City Paper, then The Baltimore Sun, where he shot photos for the marketing department.
Some of the fire department photographs are part of the show, which covers a range of Burger’s work. Visitors will find portraits, landscapes and architectural photographs, glimpses of life at The Sun, nudes and even a few shots he took as a 12-year-old wielding a Canon, his first serious camera.
By the time the Creative Alliance curators contacted Burger in 2016 about a show, he had already spent years choosing photographs for his own electronic archive. Thinking someone someday might be interested, he winnowed who knows how many thousands of images to 400.
“I wanted to have what I thought was my best work, not what someone else thinks,” Burger says.
He chose some photographs strictly for the image quality alone, some for the image as well as the story behind the picture. Most were taken with 35-millimeter cameras, but some were made in larger formats. Visitors may find some of the pictures familiar. There’s the striking and often-reproduced photograph of the stacked tiers at the Peabody Conservatory Library. A portrait of firefighter Jimmy Hayes — dabbing his face with a handkerchief during a fire on Riggs Avenue in 1981 — has been seen enough to have made Hayes “one of the most famous firefighters in Baltimore,” Burger says.
The photograph of a man assuming a jaunty pose in a cemetery while holding an umbrella and a cop’s nightstick marks a story of a Burger obsession. It’s Conrad Brooks, who played a police officer in the famously awful 1959 movie “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” for which Burger had developed a youthful affection.
Once Burger learned that Brooks — born Biedrzycki in Baltimore — was the uncle of a former Sun colleague, Burger decided he had to find the guy. It took years to track him down. At one point Burger even attended Brooks’ sister’s funeral in Baltimore hoping his man would show up. He didn’t.
“I was practically stalking him,” Burger says.
The trail eventually led to a trailer park in West Virginia, where Burger visited one rainy afternoon. He photographed Brooks in a cemetery, a reference to his graveyard scene in the movie, and published the pursuit story in The Washington Post Magazine in 2003.
So Burger recorded another bit of Baltimore lore, another endearing eccentricity, another reward for an artist who arrived in town, kept his eyes out for pictures, but never looked back.