There are tough jobs and there are very tough jobs and then there is the job of being a Chicago cop. That’s what Peter Bella was for nearly 30 years, and that time shadows and informs the life and career he has now, which is a photographer whose first public exhibition opens Friday.
“Yes, I am excited,” he says. “I have already sold a couple of pieces and I guess that makes me a professional artist.”
Born and raised on the North Side, Bella and his parents moved south, where he attended Brother Rice High School on South Pulaski Road. He felt slightly aimless as he attended classes at the University of Illinois Chicago and Roosevelt University, though he got his first taste of photography at the former institution. “A pal of mine was doing wedding photography and I was intrigued, got my first camera and started using the school’s darkroom and did some work for a small photo agency in New York and another in Italy. They wanted Chicago street scenes, from all neighborhoods.”
But that wasn’t paying the bills so in the mid-1970s, realizing that “I knew a lot of guys who were getting laid off from their jobs during the recession at the time, all except those who were police officers.”
So he applied, took the test and in a couple of years became a member of the CPD.
“There were, of course, reasons beyond just job security,” he told me. “Part of it was knowing that I would be able to help other people, would be working with the public and maybe getting a little bit of adventure.”
The “adventure” came in such neighborhoods as Little Village and Lawndale and Pilsen. “Parts of the city were like the Wild West,” he said. For the second half of his career he worked in the Forensics Services Division. By CPD definition it was a job that involved “collecting, cataloging, and preserving evidence, related to homicides and officer-involved shootings.” That meant most of his days were filled with crime and tragedy, some of it often savagely bloody.
“I dealt with that OK,” he said. “Only one or two cases really jarred me ….” He paused for nearly a minute, then said, “Kids, the ones that involved kids.”
He had his own kid, a daughter named Cordelia, now an adult working for a local Catholic school. He met his wife, Lou Hamilton, a longtime real estate broker with her own firm who now manages buildings and taught real estate at the bygone Earl of Old Town.
Like many Chicago neighborhood guys of a certain age, Bella has an affection for taverns and what they represent, saying, “They were the social centers of every neighborhood. That’s where you could go if you were looking for a job or wanted a letter written back home in your native language. They were along ethnic lines. I remember the first bar I ever went in was a polka place.”
After leaving the police force on full pension, he began to wander the city with his camera. “I wasn’t really looking to shoot something specific but am interested in what’s happening in front of me,” he says. “Often, I’ll just sit and observe. I’ll go anywhere. I am not afraid. I’ll sometime be carrying $2,500 of equipment but nothing bad or dangerous has ever happened.”
He considers himself an amateur if enthusiastic Chicagoan historian, reading voluminously. For a short time he worked at a job that perfectly aligned with his passion. He was a tour guide and supervisor at the Driehaus Museum.
He also writes, and formerly contributed to the bygone Tribune-run blog network ChicagoNow, which offered a platform (unpaid, mind you) for dozens of writers on a wide variety of subjects. Bella wrote about our city.
Such observations as well as some short stories are in his 2016 book, “Chicago Stories: Policing, Pests, and Pestilence.” And he is still writing, offering all manner of opinions on all manner of topics on his website petervbella.com, which also features some of his photos. He is very frank about his feelings, lamenting the many shuttered closed businesses along Michigan Avenue but also raving about the activity along the 26th Street shopping area in Little Village.
Here’s some of his writing:
•“All people have the right to go downtown for an evening, even in groups. No one has a right to commit crimes, violence, mayhem, or cause disturbances. Those are the young people being blamed, not demonized. There is no harm in casting blame where it is deserved.”
•“I worked in some of the poorest and wealthiest areas of the city. No matter what their station in life, people have the same problems. They are crime victims, fight with their spouses, violate various laws. In effect, they are all the same. Working with so many types of people, I learned how to converse with anyone. You cannot be shy and be a police officer. The gift of gab is one of the most important tools you have.”
•On his 70th birthday earlier this year he wrote, “I survived … as a Chicago Police Officer without being killed, catastrophically injured, fired, indicted (Came close), or imprisoned. Being a Chicago Police Officer was the best job in the world. No two days were alike. Over fifteen years ago, I retired. I do not miss the circus. I just miss the clowns.”
There will be 15-some photos on display starting Friday and running through June 30 at the Dime Gallery, 1513 N. Western Ave. Bella has been working closely with gallery owner Tony Fitzpatrick on the selections.
“The seductive thing about Peter’s photos is just how quietly revelatory they are,” Fitzpatrick says, “In street photography the coin of the realm is waiting for the moment to reveal itself before you pull the trigger, not the subject and not the place, but the moment itself. It is when the mundane becomes transcendent. These quiet moments are visually every bit as revealing, and sometimes more so. This is that Peter traffics in so seamlessly.”