‘Mayor of Adair’ says cameras see what people can’t

The Southerner

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By Lucy Leonard

A cool breeze drifted through the open studio door and carried a male’s voice into the night air. Chip Simone leaned back in his black swivel chair as he laughed in reply to the other man on the phone, his book editor.

The walls surrounding him are covered in photographs, some hanging in frames, others attached with clothing pins to a desk. Two black, flat-screen PCs flash colored lights behind his chair and an Epson printer rests on a tall writing table.

He clicks on his computer screen and pulls up his Facebook page.

“I’ve never really figured out how to do a website,” he says seriously.

Simone begins with an album of black-and-white photos from his project called Shrewsbury Street.

“This is where I grew up,” he says.

Born in 1945 to a working-class family, Simone found his love for photography when he was young.

“The first thing that fascinated me was how cameras see things.”

His earliest camera, his parents’ Kodak Bantam, didn’t even work. “It was about the size of this cell phone, except a little thicker,” Simone says, motioning with his hands. “Before I actually made a picture, I was imagining pictures by just looking through this distorted viewfinder.”

Where he grew up in Worcester, Mass., a conservative, blue-collar neighborhood, there were many pictures to imagine.

As a matter of fact, Simone says, his godfather was a “big shot” in the local mafia.

Simone smiles as a photograph flashes on his computer screen depicting a wall crammed with graffiti and a scribbled poem. He recalls an encounter with a local character that he had while shooting the picture:

“I was taking a picture of this and it was on the side of a three-story brick building that was all boarded up at the time, and this guy came out and got right in my face,” Simone said. “He said ‘What the F are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, back off.’ He told me to tell him what I was doing, and I said that I didn’t have to tell him anything. He pulled a 22-caliber pistol out of his back pocket, pushed it right into my temple and he said, ‘You tell me what you are doing or I’ll blow your f-ing brains out right here and now.’ So I gave him a synopsis that CliffsNotes would have been proud of.”

Simone added that he saw justice when Simone and his Mafia godfather ran into the thug. The man then began to apologize and told Simone that it would never happen again.

“It turned out there was a chop shop back there,” Simone added, with a laugh.

Simone started taking special art classes when he was 5 years old. He attended his local high school, where he was the school newspaper’s photographer. His school waived several requirements so that he could take more art classes. From the beginning, he was “that high-school artist.”

Simone was accepted to the Rhode Island School of Design. There were 253 kids in his freshman class. Only 173, including Simone, graduated.

Now Simone has photos in six major museums, a big show coming up at the High Museum from July 23, 2011 to Jan. 12, 2012, and grayer hair.

“I’m at the best place I’ve ever been,” Simone said.

Simone is preparing for his show at the High Museum by continuing to take pictures. He recently photographed Dragon Con in Atlanta and in Rhode Island. He says that he will not stop taking pictures for the exhibit until the new photography curator for the museum is chosen.

“My pictures aren’t easy to dance to,” Simone said, “But I have been faithful to my belief and my vision.”

Sir Elton John, the famed musician and songwriter, certainly found his dancing feet when looking at Simone’s work. John purchased 12 of Simone’s pictures, including one portraying Simone’s neighbors.

“I thought he just took pictures to give my parents,” said Thomas Ruder, a junior and a subject of this one of Simone’s photos. “But instead, a famous person bought them.”

Jane Jackson, curator of Sir Elton John Photography, is showing John more of Simone’s recent pictures, especially those from Dragon Con. Simone just received word that Nazraeli Press, a prestigious artist boutique publisher, wants to publish a book of his photographs, thanks to Jackson.

Simone is very connected with his neighborhood in Atlanta.

“Chip is the mayor of Adair [Avenue]. He is out on the street a lot. He knows everyone,” said Robin Loeb, a proud owner of the same photograph that hangs in John’s collection.

“It’s an easy place to live, not exciting, but I’m all right with a routine,” Simone said of his street.

In 1996, Simone published a photography book called On Common Ground. Its subject was the eccentric people of Piedmont Park, especially during the festival Freaknik.

The park’s kooky characters cannot be seen as much today as they could in the days of the original Freaknik, said Simone, and that is why he is not crazy about some of the recent changes in the neighborhood, but that won’t change how he feels about it.

“It’s home to me,” Simone said.

This story won All-Georgia in the Feature Profile category at the 2011 Georgia Scholastic Press Associations  Awards Assembly held April 28 2011.

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