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Columbia professor Paul D’Amato spends 12 years documenting in Pilsen

Lizeth Medina
Paul D’Amato teaches students how to color correct in the Color and Light in Photography class held in the 600 S. Michigan Ave. building, on March 14, 2024.

Photographer and Columbia professor Paul D’Amato has spent 12 years documenting Pilsen and Chicago’s Lower West Side neighborhoods, including Little Village and Back of the Yards.

The experiences and challenges D’Amato faced have shaped his documentary work.

“I learned a lot about myself and I grew a lot as a photographer doing that work, so I’m super grateful to that community,” said D’Amato, a professor in the Photography Department. 

D’Amato now uses the experience to teach his students at Columbia.


How it started

In 1988, before leaving for a teaching position at the Maine College of Art, D’Amato took a right turn off Halsted northbound to 18th Street, which led him into the heart of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. 

“The first time I drove down 18th Street was like meeting that person that you were meant to be with,” he said. 

During the summers, D’Amato traveled from Maine to Chicago to photograph the neighborhoods until he moved to Pilsen for a brief year in 1994. Ultimately, he bought a home and settled in Chicago with his family.

The open fire hydrants where children cooled off in the summer and life in the neighborhood caught D’Amato’s attention. 

New York-based photographer Helen Levitt, who is known for her street photography, inspired D’Amato, who wanted to capture the small things in people’s day-to-day lives. 

Pilsen seemed “filled with so much potential for kind of everyday drama in theater and … this way people play, the fire hydrants, the way people lived outdoors,” D’Amato said.

As D’Amato continued to photograph in the community he was invited into people’s homes, weddings, and quinceaneras,  a celebration of a 15-year-old girl’s rite of passage. 

The Martinez and Calderon families, in particular, are longtime friends of D’Amato. 

D’Amato met Victor Calderon in the 1990s while he was doing graffiti art on train tracks, and from there, Calderon introduced D’Amato to his family. Their relationship quickly grew and the family often would watch D’Amato’s son, Max, now grown and an alum of Columbia College.

D’Amato recently had a reunion with the Calderon Martinez family in the summer of 2023.  

Rocio Calderon, Calderon’s sister, met D’Amato in her backyard while rehearsing for her quinceanera. She is grateful to be able to look back at the images D’Amato took of her family during his time in Pilsen, especially those of her mother who died in 2016.

“You have so many memories just, stored away and we need to sit there and open them up and embrace them,” Rocio said.

Junior photography major, Amy Rowley-Evens color correcting a color film print in the colored darkroom in the 600 S. Michigan Ave. building, on March 14, 2024. Lizeth Medina


Why it matters

D’Amato’s experience in the neighborhood helped him cross barriers surrounding cultural identity, which he refers to as “imaginary boundaries” to get to know the community. He felt connected to Pilsen’s residents, who come from working-class families like himself. 

“It’s not a real boundary,” he said. “It’s all in our head, the things that we imagine about each other, but we have to cross those things so that we can have our own experiences with others. Otherwise, we’re stuck with what we know.” 

D’Amato reminds his students of the importance of finding a connection to your subject, “if there’s no connection between you and them [the subject], the view, the person looking at the picture later on, won’t feel that connection,” D’Amato said.

At Columbia, where he’s been since 2001, D’Amato is teaching “Color and Light in Photography” “Photography Seminar” and “The Documentary Book” this semester.

D’Amato’s rave photography inspired recent Columbia graduate Luke Fletcher who took a “Photography Seminar” with the photographer. The class helped Fletcher, who graduated in December 2023, to expand on his concert and underground rave photography. 

“What message do I really want to put out there on this underground scene?” Fletcher said. D’Amato “kind of opened my eyes to that within my own work.”

At Columbia, D’Amato teaches “Documentary Book” to assist students in producing a book about long-term documentary projects. Such as his book titled “Barrio: Photographs from Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village,” which includes photographs about his time in Pilsen exclusively shot in film, which is available for checkout at the Columbia College Chicago Library.  


What’s next 

Currently, D’Amato is working on “Midway” a project centered on the diverse community of those who live around the Chicago Midway International Airport on the Southwest side. The images are part of an exhibition that will be presented at the Cultural Center and the Stephen Daiter Gallery next fall. 

Despite the increased gentrification that has changed the Pilsen, the community remains a dear place to D’Amato.

“I go back to Pilsen, I feel like I’ve come home. I know every single brick in Pilsen.  I’ve gone down every alley, every street, hundreds and hundreds of times,” he said. 

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About the Contributor
Lizeth Medina, Bilingual Reporter
lmedina@columbiachronicle.com   Lizeth Medina is a sophomore photography major, minoring in journalism. Medina has written student profiles and reported on Student Diversity & Inclusion events, as well as Day of the Dead events and the ASL community at the college. She joined the Chronicle in August 2023.   Hometown: Chicago, Illinois