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Photo Facts: Scott Mutter's Wrigley Field fantasy

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As the Cubs gear up to play their first night game next month--and newspapers, magazines, and TV stations scramble for pictures of an event that has not yet happened--Scott Mutter's photo-poster Fans Shed Light on the Game is popping up all over town. Mutter, 44, is a Park Ridge-based photomontage artist who specializes in combining incongruous elements into almost impossibly lifelike "documents": a swan gliding across a limestone floor; Michigan Avenue supported by library pillars; football players scrimmaging at a busy downtown intersection; a skyscraper crowned by an ancient Egyptian mask. The results are often humorous, sometimes provocative, and almost always striking. But nothing Mutter has done has attracted as much attention as his Wrigley Field fantasy.

The idea first came to him in 1984, when the Cubs almost got into the World Series and night baseball in the Friendly Confines seemed a distinct possibility.

"The idea of fans lighting Wrigley Meld--with flashlights, miners' hats, whatever--had been an old Chicago joke," Mutter says. "But in '84 lights became a real issue. I calculated there's a picture begging to be made here."

Mutter, who professes to be a modest fan, began hanging out at the ballpark in '85, sizing up photo possibilities, watching the action. A slow, methodical worker, he went through the whole season without finding the right image. The following season was worse. "The team was flat. I figured, who's going to care?" But in '87, Dawson was awesome, the Cubs were generating enthusiasm again, and Mutter began to think that he'd better light Wrigley Field before the Cubs--or some other photographer--did it first. "The idea was so obvious, someone else had to be working on it. I could see myself opening up the paper one morning and there it would be: another version of 'First Night Game.'"

Ideas and techniques started falling into place. After studying dozens of vantage points, Mutter situated himself in the rear of the upper deck behind home plate to capture the sweeping view he needed of the ballpark and skyline beyond. He used an ultra-wide-angle camera whose lens pivots to expose a 140-degree panorama.

As for the action, Mutter shot hundreds of plays before he hit on one with the requisite movement and excitement: a ground ball to shortstop with runners breaking to first, second, and third. The actual moment was photographed early last June during a Cubs-Cardinals game.

Shooting at night was trickier. For one thing, it meant Mutter had to engage the Cubs' management, something he was reluctant to do. "I wanted to stay arm's length from the team. I didn't want them throwing up potential roadblocks after I'd invested so much of my time in this," he says. He considered sneaking into the park--"I'm good at crashing places; I figured I'd pay off a truck driver delivering beer at night and jump in the back"--but in the end he called a newspaper reporter he knew to arrange an officially sanctioned evening visit.

Were the Cubs curious about his intentions? "They just said yes, they didn't ask any questions."

The nighttime shots proved difficult. The special wide-angle camera that Mutter had used during the day could not expose any slower than one-sixtieth of a second, which was far too fast for the faint light of apartment buildings and high rises that he wanted for the background nightscape. Finally Mutter solved this problem in the darkroom, splicing together two smaller skyline images.

With the raw materials at hand, his next step was to fuse them into a seamless whole. For starters, he moved his nighttime skyscrapers about ten degrees to the left, so a triangle of buildings would loom above the scoreboard and give the picture compositional symmetry. A mysterious, beguiling full moon was airbrushed over the right-field bleachers, peeping through evanescent airbrushed clouds. Shadows and shading were burned onto the print to darken the daylight.

The critical and most whimsical element--the illumination of the field by fans' flashlights--was made by airbrushing light beams from the stands onto the diamond. Umps and coaches, even people watching the game from buildings across the street, were given flashlights. This is the ultimate participatory ballgame: everyone shines.

Early versions of the picture showed a good deal of playful activity from fans amusing themselves with flashlight tricks. "What would people be doing with flashlights at a night game?" Mutter asked himself. "They'd be shining it on their hands, into their faces, at their friends." But the results were too distracting, so hands and faces came out as the picture began to take shape. The only remnants of that whimsy are occasional vertical beams from those few people--one prominent in the left-field grandstand--who are ignoring the game and shining their lights straight up, into the engulfing darkness.

Although at first glance the action appears convincingly to be taking place at night, closer inspection reveals anomalies. The lower right field stands are bathed in light, the result of mid-afternoon sunlight slanting onto the field in the original day photo. Likewise, the creeping afternoon shadow thrown from the left-field roof has crept across the left field foul line. Given the time, a sharp-eyed observer can spot an even more obvious anachronism on the scoreboard.

Mutter would have fixed these errors, but his darkroom work extended into the fall and he was rushing to meet a deadline. A Dallas printer had become interested in early prints that Mutter had circulated, and agreed to use the photo at a graphics exposition to be held in November. Mutter finished the photo in late September. In exchange for a flat fee and the cost of plates, the printer got 12,000 copies for use as promotional giveaways at the exposition.

Interest in the photo was obvious from the start: "People were pulling copies from the press before they were even dry," Mutter says. "It was the first convincing demonstration that there was something special about it."

Mutter wasn't surprised. "The picture's very romantic, very mesmerizing. It doesn't have the metaphysical punch of some of my other pictures, but there's an elusiveness to it. It has a gorgeous fantasy-dream quality."

"You look at it and you smile," says Bob Hiebert, coowner of Printworks Gallery on Superior, which carries about 40 other Mutter works. "But it's atypical of Scott's work in that it's a one-liner, a Henny Youngman joke."

Mutter, who drives a rust-spotted 1978 Honda with 168,000 miles on it, has sold about 5,000 copies of the poster so far, through mail order and poster and souvenir stores. Between printing and distribution costs, he estimates spending $20,000 on the photo, not counting the hundreds of hours conceiving and executing the idea. Total gross revenues to date: $20,000. But the picture has brought him a measure of fame, and even if the novelty fades after August 8, Mutter figures it will have sparked an interest in and outlets for his other, more expensive works. Beyond that, Fans Shed Light may stand up as a genuine classic, designed to outshine and outlive all the photos to be snapped August 8. Mutter's whimsical, magical touch sheds new light on the old game.

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