Smile Politely

Scott Mutter (1944–2008)

Scott Mutter, the creator of many well-known images and surrealistic super-imposed photographs, has died. He was 64.

The Champaign-Urbana and University of Illinois communities have lost a prominent contributor to the visual arts. Mutter earned his bachelor’s degree in history in 1966 and a master’s degree in Chinese in 1968. An esteemed photographer and photomontage artist, he left a strong mark on the medium of photography and became a known figure in the world of modern art. Mutter died in his home last week.

People may recognize his pieces from a college roommate’s door, or an avid art lover might have seen it hanging in an art museum. Over the years, many people came to know Mutter’s three decades of artwork.

Mutter was born in 1944 on Chicago’s south side, close to the Rainbow Beach neighborhood. He enrolled in college at the University of Illinois in 1962 and quickly developed an affinity for exploration through literature and socializing with the fast rising “counter-culture,” starting with the Beat poets and then with the hippies and Vietnam war protesters. After he finished his master’s degree in Chinese in 1972, he started to experiment with photography and superimposition in dark rooms.

Mutter continued to pursue “photomontage” throughout the mid-1970s until he had his first showing at Brentano’s in downtown Chicago. He then started to publish his work on calendars and posters through a variety of publishing houses, most recently with Avalanche Publishing. The University of Illinois Press published his most definitive work, Surrational Images, in 1992. He lived in Park Ridge, Ill.

Scott Mutter’s work has been exhibited internationally and his photographs have appeared in Hollywood set designs, literature, photography textbooks, and in magazines and newspapers including Chicago Tribune, Print Magazine, Darkroom Photography, Harper’s, and Japan Avenue.

Details on his memorial service will be announced soon.

I knew Scott Mutter for most of my life, and while we hadn’t spoken in a few years, our time together crosses my mind often. On two particular occasions, once in 2000 and once in 2003, Scott and I had conversations about what it meant to pursue what was “natural” to oneself as opposed to what was simply dictated to us by society. Scott certainly pursued what was natural for him, whether it was his love for history or his interest in — and compulsion for — expressing the unspoken through photography.

When I first met Scott, I was nine years old. He approached our table at The Courier Café. I had no idea who he was until he was introduced as the man who “made the picture of Wrigley Field with the flashlights.” I told him I really liked the painting. He patted me on the head, chuckled and said he didn’t paint them at all; they were photos. Though I remember him quickly correcting himself: the flashlights on that particular piece were drawn in by hand.

Mutter then leaned in and asked if my brother and I if we wanted to know a secret. And of course, we did.

He told us that it was my father that helped him pursue photography. He said that he would have otherwise ended up a teacher or something else, but what my father had said to him many years earlier had changed his life.

My father asked him what he had said, but Mutter was sealed tight. He told my father that it was for himself only now.

And he said goodbye.

Mutter’s work was met with more critical acclaim in the 1990s and he became an influential surrealistic photographer. His pieces varied: scenes from nature super-imposed on top of cityscapes, jet airliners with humans walking on the wings, and pictures of the University of Illinois Main Library sitting beneath the Magnificent Mile in Chicago. His work became popular to the point of almost turning cliché; alongside the men sitting on the steel girder eating lunch during the construction of Rockefeller Center and Edward Munch’s Scream, his prints became a staple of the average college kid looking to see things a little differently than they had under their parents’ roofs.

Fast forward to the year 2000. I was soul searching. I decided to contact Mutter. We met at The Pickwick restaurant, a few blocks from where he lived.

I reminded him about our first encounter and asked him what my father said that changed his life.

This time, he happily obliged.

He told me they had run into each other at an outdoor concert in Crystal Lake Park. He started to tell my father how confused he had become; that he had recently started taking pictures of things: buildings, people, animals, whatever he could find, and that he was really turned on by it. He remembered thinking that he would feel more worthwhile photocopying thousands of his images and dumping them on Green Street than he would have been simply having a straight job and taking a bum paycheck.

He basically told him that he was lost, and that he didn’t know what to do.

And I guess my father just put his hand on his shoulder and said emphatically: “Scott. Isn’t it obvious? You should be taking pictures of history.”

It was that simple.

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