Some people seem destined to be filmmakers, even if they didn't always envision it. Painters, writers, photographers, and other artists who've spent years observing and interpreting life can one day make an intuitive leap and refine and extend their skills by taking up a movie camera. That's what happened to visual sociologist David Schalliol, 41, who more than a decade ago began working as an architectural still photographer before progressing to moving images. His feature documentary directorial debut, The Area, played to a sold-out house when it premiered last month during the Gene Siskel Film Center's Black Harvest festival; it now returns to that theater for a two-week run.
The saga of a protracted, initially furtive land grab in Englewood, in Chicago's impoverished 20th Ward, by the wealthy Norfolk Southern Railway, The Area follows citizen activist Deborah Payne for five years as she fights to preserve what's left of her neighborhood before it's bulldozed for an extension of the railroad's 47th Street intermodal shipping yard. The film grew out of Schalliol's University of Chicago PhD project in sociology, for which he documented buildings around the city that were slated for demolition.
"During my years in grad school I had a lot of time, if not money," Schalliol told me during a recent interview. "Particularly at the University of Chicago, where there's an intent in pursuing your ideas wherever they take you, this translates into a kind of looseness or flexibility in how you investigate those things that interest you. I want to meet people, understand a place, make connections, and produce work that has meaning and effect."
When not traveling to photograph cities and other sites for his blog, Sociolography, or writing activist journalism or taking on commissions (like the more than six-dozen images he shot for the 2016 book Affordable Housing in New York), Schalliol divides his time between Chicago and Minneapolis (he teaches sociology and anthropology at Saint Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota). Born in Indianapolis, he got his first camera at age ten, but became a true shutterbug while enrolled in his public high school's photography department. As a teen he used his camera to record the local hardcore and punk music scene, earning praise for his album covers and sleeve art, but it was the quieter corners of the metro area that made the bigger impact on his sensibility and worldview.
"I was living in a suburb [in Hamilton County, near Carmel, Indiana,] where urban edges were continually being redefined, and was trying to make sense of it, as farms were being purchased for the sake of suburban construction. Sitting there empty, waiting for redevelopment, they were places where I liked to hang out. When I compared those farms to their new surroundings, I started to think in terms of economic incursions and the built environment, how they influence not only where we live, but how we live, and just who is benefitting from these changes."
For proof of how this early experience shaped his aesthetic, read his 2014 art book Isolated Building Studies, a hauntingly alluring series of photos that have one thing in common: the subject is a lone home or commercial structure, either occupied or abandoned, sitting squarely in center frame and surrounded by empty lots. Street and/or sidewalk takes up roughly the bottom eighth of the frame. Seasons may vary, as well as time of day, but each image is highly evocative—eerie, poetic, even lushly romantic. Some of them remind me of Edward Hopper's paintings.
I told Schalliol that I thought I could discern his style in The Area—particularly the title shot showing two identically designed homes, one nearly destroyed. He confirmed: "I take a lot from my still photography and use it in my cinematography. Before even thinking of The Area, my role as environmental cinematographer on the documentary Almost There  was to shoot footage that matched the other images and the mood of the film, within the context of the main character [eccentric Indiana artist Peter Anton]. On that project I was working through ideas about how the kind of things I'm interested in regarding the mode of still photography can be conveyed through the elements of film.
"One of the things that facilitates this is that I use lenses with a shift-tilt function that are primarily used in architectural photography. Let's say we're in downtown Chicago and we look up at any building. We visually experience a single-point convergence: essentially, the sides of the building seem to connect at some point high up. They don't, usually, but we're perceiving it that way. What the lenses do is allow you to look at the same building without having to turn your head up. When I am standing across the street from those two houses for the title shot of The Area, I turn a knob that due to some funny physics of the lens allows the camera to record the top of the buildings without having to turn upward. That's nothing that's typically done in cinematography, but it works."
Schalliol thrives on collaboration and conversation; at the Black Harvest screening he shared a long, freewheeling Q&A with Payne, his star and a producer of the film, and coproducer and coeditor Brian Ashby (both Ashby and Schalliol are part of Chicago-based Scrappers Film Group). A historian, a pastor, a former political campaign staffer, and a government watchdog in the audience all voiced their approval of The Area, and a couple of other audience members thanked the trio for showing facets of the south side that mainstream media rarely cover.
This got me thinking again about the beauty of Schalliol's images, and something he told me earlier: "No matter how modest or how exuberant the history of any structure is, I think it is essential to treat buildings with the same amount of respect, regardless of the context of the photograph. What are the salient elements of inequality? How do you address them, and how do you figure them out? These are ideas that absorbed me as a teenager, and I'm still working through them now." v