The Bean Police | Essay | Chicago Reader

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The Bean Police

The city's charging some photographers hundreds of dollars to take pictures in Millenium Park.

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The last time Warren Wimmer tried to take a picture of Cloud Gate, better known as the Bean, a couple security guards rushed over on their Segways and tried to shoo him away. The exchange that followed is one of the wackier tales told by local photographers who can't understand why the city wants to stop them from snapping pictures in Millennium Park--which is, after all, a public space.

"I've never seen anything like this, and I've been shooting pictures in this town for 28 to 30 years," says Bob Horsch, who owns a tourist shop at 30 S. Michigan where he sells pictures he's taken, including ones of the park. "I've shot Water Tower, the Wrigley Building, Wrigley Field, the Art Institute lions, the new Soldier Field, the old Soldier Field, the new Comiskey Park, the old Comiskey Park, the Picasso statue, the Michael Jordan statue--you name it. I've never had any problems like this anywhere else."

Horsch tangled with two security guards while taking pictures of the band shell one evening last summer. "I was in the back, away from everyone, not interfering with anyone's view," he says. "One guard said, 'You can't take pictures.' I said, 'Says who? This is public domain. I want something in writing.'"

The guards left, and a few minutes later one of them returned with a two-page memo titled "Summary of Millennium Park Rules & Regulations." Horsch says, "I read that thing twice. I saw the parts banning Rollerblading and roller-skating, etc, but it didn't say anything about photographs. I said, 'This does not say anything about photographs.' He said, 'I'm just doing my job,' and walked away."

Wimmer, a freelance photographer who sells photos of local landmarks to tourist shops, had his encounter with what he calls the "Bean police" at around 8 PM on Saturday, November 13, as he was about to shoot the Bean. "I had my tripod set up so I could get the night exposure correct, and these two guys on Segways swoop down on me," he says. "One of the guards says, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I'm taking pictures--what does it look like I'm doing?' He said, 'What are you taking pictures for?'"

Wimmer identified himself as a photographer for the Chicago Sports Review, a monthly newspaper for which he freelances. "I thought he'd leave me alone if I said I worked for a paper," he says. "But he said, 'Where's your permit?' I'm just looking at him. He says, 'Your permit that lets you take pictures of the park.' I said, 'I don't know what you're talking about, my friend.' He said, 'I think we have a problem here.' I said, 'I don't think we have a problem--I'll take my pictures and get out.' He said, 'You've got to have a permit here.' I said, 'Where do you get a permit?' So he tells the other guard, 'Go get a permit.' I'm laughing. I said, 'You guys have to be kidding me.' He said, 'This is not a laughing matter. We will keep you here until this is resolved.'"

Wimmer says he stood there with one guard until the other returned with a permit form attached to a clipboard. "I didn't get a copy of the form," he says, "but I remember it said something like $50 an hour for wedding photographs."

Wimmer thought it was preposterous that the city would even think of charging photographers to take pictures in a public park. "I was laughing--I actually thought it was funny," he says. "I said, 'You people are out of your minds.' He said, 'This whole park is copyrighted.' I said, 'Pardon my ignorance, but how can you copyright a park?' I said, 'I'm not going to pay this money. I'm going to leave.' He said, 'We have a problem here.' I said, 'If I leave we have no problem.'"

At this point, Wimmer says, he thought of a classic Chicago way of handling the problem. "I said, 'What will it take to make this shit go away? Will $20 make this go away?' He said, 'Yeah, man. That will make it go away.'"

Wimmer says the guard handed him the clipboard and told him, "Put the 20 under the clipboard. Pretend you're filling out the form, but don't fill it out. And if anybody asks you, you can stay around for another half an hour or so."

Wimmer says he put the 20 on the clipboard and handed it to the guard. He stayed for another 10 or 15 minutes taking pictures, then left. He told friends about the shakedown but didn't report it to the police because he didn't think it was that serious. He's still laughing at himself for being a chump. "The kicker is that the guard told me, 'If you had told me you were a private citizen taking pictures for your own personal use we would not have stopped you,'" he says. "He said, 'If you're ever here again, tell them it's for your own personal use.' In my case, though, I had a big wide-angle lens sitting on a tripod with a timer, so it looks pretty professional. I'm not really sweating it. My attitude is, this is how Chicago works. Basically it cost me $20 to have a fun evening with a few laughs."

But he is concerned about the larger issue. "I think it's ridiculous to say we can't take a picture in a public park without paying a fee," he says. "You can take a picture of the Statue of Liberty and no one hassles you. You can take a picture of the Picasso statue and nobody hassles you. What's the deal with Millennium Park?"

I called Ed Uhlir, Millennium Park's project director, for an explanation, and his press assistant, Karen Ryan, responded with an e-mail. "The copyrights for the enhancements in Millennium Park"--meaning the Bean, the band shell, the Columbus Drive pedestrian bridge, the Crown Fountain, and Lurie Garden--"are owned by the artist who created them," she wrote. "As such, anyone reproducing the works, especially for commercial purposes, needs the permission of that artist." She added, "artists are increasingly sophisticated about copyrights and this is standard practice for today's artists. . . . This was not the case years ago (i.e., the Art Institute Lions, Wrigley Building, etc.)."

According to Ryan, a professional photographer has to buy a $325 media permit to shoot for any part of one day in any city park, not just Millennium Park. She did add, "The policy allows students, journalists, and amateur photographers to shoot in the park with no restrictions."

So the security guard was wrong when he told Wimmer he wasn't allowed to shoot pictures of the Bean for a local newspaper. But it's easy to see how the guy got confused, because the photo policy raises as many questions as it answers. Why, for instance, does the city distinguish between "journalists," like Wimmer when he's shooting pictures for the Chicago Sports Review, and "professionals," like Wimmer when he's turning his pictures into postcards? They're both for-profit enterprises trying to make a buck using pictures of Millennium Park.

Ryan promised to get back to me with an answer (at press time she hadn't). I'd asked Uhlir similar questions about photo-policy inconsistencies back in August, when I wrote about the $50-an-hour fee the city charges wedding photographers to shoot in Millennium Park. Uhlir told me that as far as he was concerned the policy was clear enough, that he didn't want to deal with hypothetical questions.

Ryan did say the city planned to get tough with the guards who allegedly shook down Wimmer. "This is the first we've heard of the security guards asking for money," she wrote. "It is completely unacceptable and we will investigate immediately."

Wimmer laughed when I told him the city was going after the guards. He said what the guards wanted was piddling compared to what the city wanted. "They took $20," he said. "The city wants to charge 300 bucks or whatever."

Meanwhile the cat and mouse between photographers and guards continues at Millennium Park. "As long as you don't have a tripod you're OK--you're like any ordinary tourist," says one photographer. "But if you have a tripod or any kind of professional equipment the guards come after you."

Horsch says that Uhlir himself came into his shop last summer to warn him against selling note cards of Millennium Park. "I said, 'I'm doing note cards and magnets,'" says Horsch. "He said, 'We're going to shut you down.'"

Horsch says he'll go to court if necessary to protect his right to sell Millennium Park images, and he thinks he has compelling arguments. For starters, he says, why should the city go after a local photographer who generates taxes by peddling note cards on behalf of out-of-town artists who've already been paid for their work? "This is a public park," he says. "If it's good enough for Picasso, it's good enough for Millennium Park."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jim Sergey.

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