It’s the unusual person who is able to transform their commutes to and from their office into anything meaningful, let alone a profound body of work documenting a generation. But Patric McCoy has done just that.
McCoy, a retired scientist as well as an art collector, spent years carrying his 35mm camera on his bike commute, photographing a number of men whom he encountered along the way. McCoy also took photos of men he met in various bars around Chicago, particularly the Rialto Tap, where Black men who had sex with men frequently gathered.
The result was a collection of thousands of photographs portraying mostly gay and queer Black men in the city during the ‘80s. Many of his subjects died at the height of the AIDS crisis, and McCoy’s pictures could very well be some of their last remaining photos.
“I didn’t have a natural inclination to take the photography in a technical and professional sort of way,” McCoy recalled. “I have always been interested in visual imagery because I grew up in a home filled with art and photography. My father was a painter and a photographer.”
As a young man during the ‘60s and ‘70s, McCoy carried a point-and-shoot camera and took “lots and lots and lots of pictures.” A friend who worked at a camera shop eventually convinced McCoy that he should graduate to a 35mm model.
“I had a hesitation because I had not been that ‘tech-y’ with a camera,” he said. “But he convinced me.”
In December 1984, he made a three-pronged promise to himself. First, he committed to get serious about learning how to use the camera. Second, he would take his camera with him everywhere he went. And third, if anyone asked him to take their picture, he would stop what he was doing in order to do so.
He thus bicycled each day, with his camera, from his home in South Shore to his job with the Environmental Protection Agency in the Loop.
McCoy said, “Invariably, people would see me—because I’m sure I looked like quite a little nerd—and they would holler out at me, ‘Hey, take my picture.’ With this commitment, I had to stop [and do it].”
He never told his subjects what to do or how to pose. Among McCoy’s subjects were residents of various South Side neighborhoods, and people experiencing homelessness who were at the time living in Grant Park. The patrons from the Rialto Tap particularly seemed to enjoy engaging with McCoy’s camera.
“It was in the south end of the Loop, in the seedy portion,” McCoy recalled with a laugh. “…They all also started asking me to take their picture. It became a flood.”
McCoy now recognizes the pertinence of his pictures for the bar’s patrons.
“These are people who wanted to be seen and wanted to be documented,” he explained. “During this time period, most people did not have good photographs of themselves. Point-and-shoot cameras were popular, but we now know that the film was not set up to make Black people look good, and most people looked like smudges. … People seeing me with what was considered an expensive, professional camera were saying, ‘Maybe I can see if he can make me look good.’
McCoy would develop and print the film each night in his father’s darkroom, then present his subjects with their photo the next day.
“They would be astounded—it was a 5×7, so something larger than what they were normally accustomed to—and excited that I was just giving it to them,” he recalled.
Though he gave away many of the pictures, he nevertheless was left with a huge collection of his work. In 2022, his friend, artist Juarez Hawkins, set about curating those photos for an exhibit.
“I had the daunting task of looking at about 1,500 images,” Hawkins said. “For the first run, I just looked to see what bubbled up. Just in the looking, I began to see groupings…like men at leisure, men hanging out, busy with life. Lots of fashion—fashion was a lot of fun…men on bikes, lots of beautiful men on bikes. From there, I started narrowing it down. From each grouping, I asked, “What’s going to tell the story the best?”
By the time Hawkins narrowed it down to 200-250 pictures, she admitted to herself that she still had a “curatorial juggernaut.”
“There were no duds in the bunch,” she said. “But I wanted things that talked to one another so each grouping fed a piece of the narrative.”
Hawkins considered herself lucky that McCoy was around to contribute his ideas: “Patric definitely had a say,” she said.
McCoy, who is himself assembling the images for a book, said that he regards the Wrightwood show as “the opening of a discourse, a conversation, about that time. Since we’re in a world where queer identity is accepted, [we have to ask], ‘Where did that come from? What came before this?’ … If we didn’t start this conversation, [the history] would be totally lost.”
Matt Simonette is the executive editor of Windy City Times.
This story is made possible with support from Comcast Corporation.