Interview with Tom Palazzolo

Tom is a painter, photographer and film maker who taught art at Daley College for 36 years. He has worked in these media since 1965. His work has been shown extensively in the US and in Europe. Major shows include MOMA, The Whitney in NY and the New wing of the Art Institute and has been featured on channel 11′s IMAGE UNION.  The interview below was featured in Lumpen 120 / Cholo Magazine #1 Digital edition. The  Tom Palazzolo Retrospective: Film, Photographs, Paintings, Watercolors & Sculpture opens this Friday, July 12 – 7PM – 11PM, continuing through Sunday, July 21 at the Co-Prosperity Sphere,3219-21 South Morgan Street, Chicago Illinois, 60608 .

Joe Bryl:  Can you describe the climate of an independent filmmaker during the beginning of your pursuit toward documenting different aspects of social life and the individuals that you were drawn to. How different was it then to what is more common today?

Lots of excitement in the 60′s air, pop art set the stage for a big break from 50′s serious stuff like abstract expressionism. So called Underground films where just starting to make waves, led primarily by west coast filmmakers like Bruce Conner. After working in that vein from the mid 60′s to about 1970 I made the transition to documenting events. The inspiration came from pioneering films by DA Pennabaker and Ricky Leacock who developed the use of light weight handheld  cameras and used the new Nagra portable sound recorder. Their work was a big jump from previous documenters that where tied down to a tripod. Unlike the old didactic approach  they where a lot more open to wider narrative possibilities of the media. All of this was new and held the prospect of exciting new directions. Lots of good work being done nowadays but back then it was all new and we had the feeling we were pioneers.

Joe: What avenues where available to get your work viewed at a time when the information network of instant communication had not existed yet? How did you go about exposing people to your work and what organizations and people where there in the early years of film culture to offer support and guidance?

Back in the 60 we had plenty of opportunities for exposure thru college film festivals. Most of which, with the exception of Ann Arbor no longer exist. Locally the Aardvark group produced film screenings every Monday night at Second City. Roger Ebert would regularly review them, he was very helpful in promoting my early work, even wrote a feature article in the Sun-Times. He and I appeared with Studs Terkel on his WTTW talk show. Places like Center City Co-Op and Canyon in San Francisco acted as distributor outlets for our films. Major funding was available thru the newly formed Illinois Art Council and later The Center for New Television. My work was featured early in the 60′s and up to the 90′s on public TV’s program Image Union. That program no longer exists.

Joe:  How did you decide what subjects to film and describe how you would approach the technical aspects of documentary filmmaking? What were the limitations in place either due to the possible hesitancy of the subjects involved in a time before aggressive exposure of individuals lives and what where the technical considerations in filming your pieces?

I’m always on the lookout for film subjects, some times they come by way of suggestions from friends. Labor Day film was suggested by a student who lived in East Chicago and had witnessed the Labor day celebration at Calumet Park. His description of the beauty pageant, boxing competition and  various other events convinced me that it would be right up my alley. I grew up in a working class area of St. Louis much like that part of the city and this subject mater allowed me to revisit a youthful  experience.

For that same reason I did a film on the old  amusement park Riverview. Other films like “Enjoy yourself it’s later than you think” I just stumbled on to while passing Grant Park one summer day. Some events where just too notorious to miss. Maxwell St., the 68 convention, but generally I’m looking for things that are off the radar. With large complicated events like the Nazi marches in Marquette Park. I like to use myself and another camera man. In that particular case it was a blond blue eyed friend Mark, for obvious reasons he fit right in. When two sync cameras where not available we used a wild camera like a Bolex for cutaway shots. Dealing with public events makes it easy to approach people, they are so tuned into what they are doing that they scarcely notice the camera. I never probe into peoples private lives so that has not presented any problems.

Joe: Who was an influence on your work (other filmmakers, writers, musicians) and where do you draw your inspiration from?

Lots of influences, here’s a short list:

Beat poetry, short films I checked out of the library, non fiction books like George Orwell’s  ”Down and Out in London and Paris”, plays that I saw at Goodman theater’s smaller space that was just off their main stage. Students would perform classics and on occasion Pinter, my favorite! Street photography that I looked at in the print room or the Art Institute. The museum was a big inspiration as was the foreign  films I saw for 50 cents at the old Clark Theater. Lastly, the city of Chicago and all its mysterious places that were so new to me when I arrived here in 1960 from St. Louis.

Joe: Have you seen a change of interpretation of your work over time? Currently you are focusing your energies on painting and sculpture. Do you still have any interest in the form of documentary filmmaking or is this another aspect of a continuum of your development as an artist?

Hard to say if the interpretation of my films has changed, some have received good reviews others not. No one has done an in depth overview or analyzed my approach or what they perceive to be my Raison d’être. What ever that word means? Right now my plans are to continue amusing myself with painting. Film and still photography are for now on the back burner. My enlarger and film editing table sit rusting in the basement.

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