Love Through a Lens

by Felicia Dechter, Skyline Chicago
February 14, 2002

If you’re looking to give your valentine a hint regarding marriage, take him or her to check out photographer Steven Gross’s exhibit, “Black and White: Defining Moments of Weddings and Marriage.”

The exhibit of black-and-white wedding photography runs through April 2 at the City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower, 806 N. Michigan Ave.

Gross, an Oak Park, Mich. Native who has lived in Chicago since 1980, is sure to sway more than a few wanna-be-married hearts with his wedding photos, which are his specialty. Yet there was a time he questioned whether he could make a living doing what he loved, shooting pictures.

He moved to Chicago to attend Columbia College, where he got a degree in photography and never left.

“I fell in love with the city and stayed,” Gross said. “I always wondered though, ‘God, can you make a living at this?’ It’s a full-time passion, my avocation and vocation.”

He started out doing shoots for expenses only for organizations such as the Red Cross. His experience stemmed from his pre-Columbia College days in the Air Force, where Gross earned the cash to buy his first camera.

“I began shooting the other soldiers,” he said. “I took the camera wherever I went,, we couldn’t be separated.”

While stationed in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he’d volunteer for official photo duties, which much of the time got him out of other official duties.

“I got to have longer hair, and instead of being inspected, I took pictures of the inspections.” Gross said, “I got out of clean up duties.”

“I didn’t want to be an aircraft mechanic working 12-hour shifts and reeking of jet fuel. The military wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to be a lifer.”

Before long, Gross found himself stationed in Germany, and it was there that he began thinking about what to do with the rest of his life, although after being in the service, he knew he wanted to be his own boss. He found an answer while in a German bookstore.

“I walked into a bookstore and was inundated by photographic images,” he said. “I thought, ‘Somebody is making a living why can’t I?’”

Now 20 years later, besides shooting weddings, the 46-year-old, who mainly uses Leica and Hasselbad cameras, has his own studio, Real Life Weddings at 4330 N. Lincoln Ave., where he also shoots portraits. He also does a feature for Chicago Magazine called, “Mr. Walker,” where he photographs 11 black-tie events a year.

In addition, Gross keeps exceptionally busy with other projects. Tonight, Thursday, February 14 at 9:00pm on PBS, “Marriage, Is It Just a Piece of Paper?” a show narrated by Cokie Roberts, will feature Gross’ black-and-white wedding photographs illustrating segment changes.

And Tuesdays on NBC, check out the sitcom called “Three Sisters,” Gross said his black-and-white photographs will be introducing the show’s characters each week. However, he said, “Someone in marketing must have thought it would be a good idea to colorize them.”

Gross who shoots in black and white only, has fooled those who said he could never make a living shooting solely in black and white, among them his Columbia Colleges teachers. In June, he will celebrate his 20th Anniversary of doing so.

“When I started in the 80’s, I cut out 90 percent of my client base, but right now, black and white is in,” Gross said. “If you look at wedding magazines, you’ll see more and more black and white.”

“For a wedding, using black and white is symbolic,” he added. “Weddings last forever, and so does black and white film. There’s an instant nostalgia, a timeless quality that you can only feel from a black-and-white photo.”