Interview #8: Monica Kass Rogers (2020)⁠

Red birds and rushes (Chicago, 2020)⁠ by Monica Kass Rogers.

Monica Kass Rogers is an explorer and an archeologist of the modern city, discovering and recording the traces of lives that would otherwise have vanished forever. She spends much of her free time adventuring down the alleys where we all loved to play as children, documenting the treasures that others discard and walk by. Her photography is often so physical that it becomes sculptural, and her textures are a braille for our eyes to read the untold stories of the city. For Monica, discovery is synonymous with creation. Here is our interview with her.

PR/Your current photography series is called ‘The Alley Project’. Why photograph alleys?

MKR/Chicago has more alleys than any other city in the United States — more than 9000 miles of them. It’s endless. Alleys have always been service lanes — where the garbage, horses, and then cars were kept, where you did your “dirty” work. For us city kids, they were where we could play as loud as we wanted to, with no one to tell us not to make a mess. That forever appeals. And dreams hide here. In the layers of peeling paint. In garages that tilt and lean. In the used-to-be murals, patched-over traffic cones, broken toys and crooked lettering, fences fallen, fences propped. And always the landscape of shifting trash.

Alley Eden (Evanston, 2020)⁠ by Monica Kass Rogers.
Dandy (Chicago, 2020)⁠ by Monica Kass Rogers.
Matter (Skokie, 2020)⁠ by Monica Kass Rogers.

PR/When did your fascination with alleys begin?

MKR/I grew up in Ukrainian Village, deep in the city, about 10 minutes from Chicago’s Loop. Each neighborhood has a different “look”, depending on when it was built, and the demographic of the people it was built for. My neighborhood was built for the working class, much of it by an architect named William Kerfoot who devised these little gable-topped brick houses so distinctive, they were known as Kerfoot cottages. From the front, there was a pretty-well-kept sameness to the look of each block. But the back was another thing. The cheery face put on for public viewing is very seldom echoed at the back. What you see there is a lot more interesting.

PR/When did you begin doing photography?

MKR/I went to a small women’s college in Texas when I was 17. I’d never held a camera before that. But as a journalism student, photography was required, and the chairman of the art department, Susan Kae Grant taught the classes. What a life changer! Susan’s fine art approach to photography opened worlds for me. I felt I had found myself. She not only placed that first Yashica D twin-lens reflex camera in my hands, she encouraged me to wander wherever my imagination led. She was also a book artist and taught me letterpress printing and how to make handmade art books. After graduation, I went straight home to buy my first letterpress printing press, and then to the School of the Art Institute to study more photography. For me, the gorgeous texture of hand-made letterpress, the heavy, ancient metal machinery, and the texture of a deeply-imagined photograph have always been linked.

Dino (Evanston, 2020)⁠ by Monica Kass Rogers.

PR/Your work in The Alley Project is largely textural, rather than portraits of people you see there. Why?

MKR/Textures tell of the passage of time, and abstractions leave room for the viewer to imagine from there. I was just listening to an interview with writer Roger Angell, who is still writing at 100 years old, and he said something that struck a chord: Writers return to the same themes, over and over again. These emerge one way in youth and then evolve with maturity, changing and growing as they are reimagined. I think the same is true for the stories we tell with images. Layers left by the passage of time, the feeling of past lives that linger in the shadows constantly call out to me. I have a longing to stay connected to what was — what I knew, what they knew.

PR/When did you begin shooting textures?

MKR/When I was 18. I made a limited-edition letterpress-printed book filled with black and white images I took wandering in an abandoned dormitory that had been sitting empty for 30 years. So much texture, shadow and muted light in those empty rooms! There was no graffiti, but I found remnants of the lives of the girls who once lived there. I wrote little verses to go with the images. “…white wraiths hover, listless. Their dragging fingers prick over rough-warped gray, to leave faint trace and disperse with the day.” Things like that.

Supplicant (Waukegan, 2020)⁠ by Monica Kass Rogers.

PR/How do you find the stories you “tell” in your alley photos?

MKR/By listening. As a journalist, I’ve always loved the opportunity to meet people, to ask them questions and to listen as their stories come out. So many times, they begin untrusting and unsure, giving short, calculated answers. But as someone listens — really listens to them, trust is built and they show themselves, in longer, deeper stories. With the photography I do in alleys, it’s the same. If I stand still in one place for a time, all of the details I didn’t see at first come out, call out to me. And then post-processing the images, even more of what was always there, reveals itself.

White Mares (Chicago, 2020)⁠ by Monica Kass Rogers.
Hidden Truths (Evanston, 2020)⁠ by Monica Kass Rogers.

PR/What appeals most to you about doing The Alley Project?

MKR/Freedom. During this pandemic, I need a free, creative outlet more than ever. I’ve always struggled with the line between “creative” work and “commercial” work. Paying work for most of my life has come with client parameters, which I respect, so the results need to fit their guidelines whether writing, photographing food or doing portraiture. Over time, my own style has emerged in a way that some clients ask for and that’s been a happy thing. But in The Alley Project, I am fully free to explore and create. I hope — and I’m beginning to believe, that what I discover in that free space will make its way into whatever else I write or shoot.

PR/Do you have other projects in the works?

MKR/Always! I am beginning a series of textural abstracts on scarring. I was born with CDH, a congenital birth defect that required lengthy surgery when I was two days old, leaving me with scars across my midsection, curving from there across my back. That surgery saved my life, so those scars are beautiful to me. I think the scars many of us carry are not only beautiful symbolically, but texturally. I’m also planning a new abstract series with my food photography.

Portrait of Monica Kass Rogers.

Monica Kass Rogers is an explorer and an archeologist of the modern city, discovering and recording the traces of lives that would otherwise have vanished forever. She spends much of her free time adventuring down the alleys where we all loved to play as children, documenting the treasures that others discard and walk by. Her photography is often so physical that it becomes sculptural, and her textures are a braille for our eyes to read the untold stories of the city. For Monica, discovery is synonymous with creation. Here is our interview with her.

Interviewed by Paul Rowland.

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Hintology

New digital magazine that seeks to portray the abstract photography scene and the human-beings behind the pictures in all their depth and diversity.