As chroniclers of Detroit's burgeoning fringe performance scene go, John Sobczak is an unlikely candidate. Tall, soft-spoken, with a kempt coif of gray hair and a clean shave, the 54-year-old Bloomfield Township resident has been photographing Detroiters since 1980, and has four books under his belt. The conventional-looking shutterbug's new show has an out-there subject as its focus: Detroit's fire performance scene.
A client of his (and Metro Times Best of Detroit model for this year), Satori Circus, introduced him to the Detroit Fire Guild, and Sobczak did a group shot for them a few years ago. It was a good shoot, and it was only a matter of time before others from the group got in touch to have him turn their performances into portraits.
"It just kind of happened," Sobczak says. "Now, I've photographed about two-thirds of them.
"They're very interesting people. They have a lot of character. Obviously, shooting the fire has a lot of technical challenges to it, trying to get detail in that, but obviously you have to shoot it dark enough to get detail in the shadows, and I love the challenge of it."
What's more, Sobczak was surprised to not be dismissed by these hip fire flingers. He says, "I'm older, probably twice the age of most of these people, and, although I consider myself extremely liberal, I'm square compared to these people. Why these people will allow me to hang with them and take their photos is surprising and cool. ... They're very welcoming, very spiritual, very positive. It's kind of like I'm thriving on the energy I get from them. Enjoying the positive aspects of their personalities, which is not something I had anticipated, that they'd be such great people to be around."
The photos themselves are technically and artistically excellent, well-captured portraits of these outlandishly dressed performers, many of whom are members of the Detroit Fire Collective. The pictures' quality likely owes something to Sobczak's empathy, which shows through when he says, "I don't mean this in a demeaning way, but I feel they have this innocence, this sort of childlike play that gets stamped out of most people as they grow up, and I think they're fighting that. That they want to enjoy a lot of the things that they had the opportunity to do when they were young. ... They love it. They live for it. They'll spend months coming up with an outfit for it and making it, and doing the full makeup. And I think that's phenomenal."
The opening for Fire & Flow: Portraits by John Sobczak takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 18, at Tangent Gallery, 715 E. Milwaukee St., Detroit, and features performances by the Detroit Fire Collective. — mt