Jeff Johnson is a professional photographer whose new photo book, The Last New Year, chronicles the final night of the much loved and now closed, The Flame Steakhouse, on New Years Eve 2011.
Here’s what he had to say.
La Grange Patch: Tell us a little about yourself. What's your connection to La Grange and what do you do for a living?
Jeff Johnson: I’m 45 years old. I am a third generation professional Chicago photographer: both my father and grandfather were newspapermen and photojournalists. I graduated from Lyons Township High School in 1985 and lived in La Grange right after high school for many years. I attended the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland and the School of Art Institute in Chicago [at] neither of which did I study photography and neither did I finish. I’ve been a professional photographer for about eight years selling my work in stores, exhibiting throughout Chicago and the suburbs and working with local bands and commercial clients as well. My first book Portfolio: Chicago is available at: www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/2018416
Patch: What made you want to do a photo book about The Flame's final night?
Johnson: As a photographer, capturing the closing of The Flame Restaurant—after 53 years—in photographs is really all about the story. To me it’s a story of the place itself, the restaurant, which is so much more than a place where one goes to eat and drink- a place like that is a facilitator for the moments, big and small, in people’s lives. A place like that spans generations: it sits still like a rock while the lives of five decades of people flow through and around it like a river. And, of course, the rock can’t help but be changed by the river and the river can’t help but be changed by the rock.
I feel that while The Flame was a part of the fabric of the Chicago area, to me The Flame is really just a symbol of the relationship that people have all over the world to restaurants and bars. It’s a complex relationship that people have been engaged in for hundreds of years. While not all restaurants have that sort of ‘Cheers’ quality where a real family is created within the staff and the customers alike, the Flame was certainly a place that had that special something.
Patch: What made The Flame an important place for you?
Johnson: My grandparents and parents had been going to The Flame since the start, and ever since I was a child I had been going as well. When I was a kid it was one of those places that you went for a special occasion and that didn’t end even when I became older. In fact, it would be a place where I would bring visitors from out of town or the country, as it was a neighborhood touchstone in some respects due to its connection with not only the generations of my family, but many generations of the people that I knew would dine there.
I like steakhouses. I like the décor and the feeling that you get in them.
I had been documenting the restaurant and its people for a few years before the last night, because I had realized that the restaurant was a virtually untouched living slice of another time, certainly architecturally, but even more important, culturally.
It’s the kind of place that you see in films or TV—Mad Men, etc.—and this was the real thing, of which not too many still exist in the Chicago area. Documenting it seemed a no-brainer as it was sitting at my feet.
Patch: Your book summary says you were waiting tables that night as you shot. Did you regularly work at the Flame? Was it difficult to shoot while you served?
Johnson: I was waiting tables that night. I had worked at The Flame off and on for many years, and in doing so I came to know both the ins and outs of a restaurant, but also came to respect and admire many of the people that worked in the restaurant industry.
Working in a restaurant, and doing it right, can be a very difficult job, and every cog in the wheel, no matter deemed how menial by a customer, is important. And I wanted to try and capture that.
Oddly enough, something of an inspiration in capturing the images in this book were the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec: his capturing of the nights at the Moulin Rouge and the Moulin de la Galette specifically. I strove to capture the same color and motion, and to get anywhere near the brilliance of those paintings. The people in those paintings back in 1889, drinking, dancing, laughing, looking somber or having a great time were no different than the scenes before me in 2012.
Waiting tables and taking the photos was difficult due to the fact that I worked with my camera around my neck and it would swing around and often bang off of walls. But [also] it made taking photos easier to be sure, because I had the camera with me at all times and more importantly, as a waiter, I had access to all parts of the restaurant.
Patch: What else do you like to shoot?
Johnson: I love photographing anything really, but I enjoy getting at the story in a subject, whether it is a portrait of a person, a building, or an event.
Patch: Why do you think La Grange residents would be interested in this book?
Johnson: I think that the reason La Grange residents, specifically, would be interested in this book is because, while many people have beautiful photo history books of points big and small across the globe, most people would be quite surprised at the places of history in or around their own town. It can reshape the way you look at the world that you see everyday.
Patch: What projects are you working on now?
Johnson: Currently, I am working on a few different projects, including a book of my father, Denny Johnson, and his photojournalism career, which spanned from the 1960s-1990s, as well as working on a brand new photo project tentatively titled, Chicago Nocturne. [I finished] a similar book about my grandfather, Elmer Johnson’s career, from the 1930s-1960s entitled, Scoop: Chasing Chicago for the Front Page.