Runners by the lake

(All photography by David Travis, AB’71)

Who’s that guy taking pictures every morning on the bike path?

It’s David Travis, AB’71. Here’s what he’s up to.

On a Hyde Park parenting email list last fall, mixed in with questions about babysitters and Halloween costumes, there was a concerned message. Early in the morning, nearly every morning, a man was taking photos of joggers and cyclists on the lakefront bike path.

Hyde Park is a small community, so explanations came in quickly. That’s no creepy man. It’s David Travis, AB’71, photography teacher at Columbia College and curator of the department of photography at the Art Institute from 1972 to 2008.

Terren Wein, a Hyde Park parent and sometime jogger, was intrigued, although she’d never seen him. “I was really struck by the exchange,” says Wein, who’s also the director of communications at the Divinity School. So she invited Travis to talk at the school’s Wednesday community lunch. “Here is a highly respected artist who is also a long-standing member of the community. He chose to create some art in public. I was interested in our discomfort with how private and public boundaries are melting.”

Travis began taking photographs in the late 1960s, as an undergraduate working for the Chicago Maroon. For his current body of work, he decided, “I’m going to follow light. That’s going to be my primary subject.”

On the lakefront, he chose what he calls “a set trap,” just north of the 51st Street overpass. There are three trees and a big hole where a puddle collects. “You just stay there and let an event happen,” he says.

Travis is transfixed by the people who pass—with their glowing water bottles, bouncing ponytails, floppy shoelaces—but he’s not making portraits. “I’m not really photographing the subject,” he says. “I do need the subject, but I’m not there to do the subject. I’m there to do luminosity.”

He likes to go to the spot he calls “my studio” in the early morning, as the sun is rising. “In the summer it’s tough. You have to be there before 6,” he says. “Now it’s about 7:20, 7:12 a.m. maybe. Today it’s really cold. Your battery gets weak in the cold.” Sometimes he’ll return in the evening. “I go maybe four times a week, mornings and evenings,” he says. “You gotta put the time in.”

His students at Columbia College call street photographers “creepers” because they think street photography is creepy—a very different attitude from the 1960s, he notes. “Then you get into this thing about the male gaze,” Travis says. “I can’t win that argument. You’re already guilty.”

Travis wanted to have a recent photograph to show for his Div School talk. “I went out, froze to death,” he tells the audience, who laugh appreciatively. “I thought, nobody’s coming. Then a cross-country team comes by. Thank you!”

“It’s generous out there,” Travis says, as he admires his own photograph of a showy pink sunset. “The subject”—meaning the light, not the joggers and cyclists—“is very generous.”