CHICAGO — The Checker taxi garage was a massive place, just to the north of North Avenue and stretching from Wells Street west to North Park Avenue. It was a wild and busy and noisy place, a human beehive.
Allan Lee Koss was in and out of there hundreds, likely thousands, of times. He drove for Checker from 1977 to 1988. He drove nights and, for him, it was a good job. And why not? If memory serves, drivers received 42% of whatever clicked on the meter, kept all tips, and the company took care of gas and maintenance.
I know that because I drove a cab too, out of that same garage, starting a few years before Koss and into his time there. We never met then but I share his feelings. “I liked driving,” said Koss. “There was a freedom to it and the people. It was a real job and you could make a good living. Yes, I was proud to be a cabdriver.”
He grew up with a sister on the Southwest Side of the city and his father was a manager for Sears. Koss graduated from Kelly High School and then entered Northeastern Illinois University majoring in history with the intention of becoming a teacher. “I spent a lot of years in college,” he says. “I did some traveling. I had a bunch of different kinds of jobs. I tended bar for a while at a place near the Checker garage.”
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Sitting next to him on the front seat of his cab was a Nikon camera of the point-and-shoot variety, which had been a gift from his father. By then he had been taking photos for some time. “I did take one photo class but I am basically self-taught,” he says. “It’s intuitive, I suppose, but I love it.”
He took his camera to the chaos surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention and the more sedate 1996 edition. He was shooting photos at various protests and marches over the years. He was at Woodstock. He shot pictures in San Francisco, where he lived for a while. He shot in Mexico. He shot graffiti and gang signs. He shot chillingly intimate photos of drug addicts, and civil rights gatherings, and parades …
And he shot passengers who rode in his cab. There are dozens of them on the pages of his first book, “Fares: Chicago Taxicab Portraits.” It is a feast of faces, some smiling and some dour. Some people are in costumes, some hold children. Black and white; young and old. There is a dog. Some people hold money to pay their fares. Some hold photographs. Many are pretty women.
“I don’t take pictures of flowers,” he says. “I always got permission to take the cab photos and though some people said no, most seemed maybe flattered.”
This book has been long in the making. Koss attended a conference decades ago at the Art Institute where he encountered the famous photographer Richard Avedon. Koss showed him some cab photos and told of his plans for a book of them.
“Avedon said he loved the idea,” says Koss. “But when I later asked him for a favorable quote I could use, he turned me down. And the university presses I approached about a book also gave me a ‘No.’”
He swallowed his frustration and put his book dreams on hold until last year, when a real estate developer named Perry Casalino came into the picture.
“I saw some of his photos for sale on eBay, photos of the old market on Maxwell Street,” said Casalino, who has been collecting art and photography for decades. “That led me to his website and that led me to him.”
Casalino visited Koss in his North Side apartment, which is jammed with photos. They are packed in file cabinets, on the walls, in piles.
Casalino, who had previously published books in collaboration with and about other photographers on a fascinating self-publishing platform called Blurb, was immediately grabbed by Koss’ taxi cab photos. Together, the pair created this book because, Casalino says, “These are the faces of this city at that time. They are the faces of hardscrabble characters, workers, kids, ladies of the night.”
Most of the faces in the book are anonymous, unnamed, though I did recognize the young Koss in a sort of self-portrait; Studs Terkel and his wife Ida; WFMT’s Ray Nordstrand; and Eddie Balchowsky, a poet, artist, musician, composer who lost his right hand fighting in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and was one of our city’s great characters.
“It’s been remarkable how many people have recognized other people in the book,” says Casalino. “I think this book is as much about Allan as it is about the subjects. I think he is a great photographer and I think I have only scratched the surface of his work.”
Both men would like to have an exhibition of the photos and I could see such an eye-catching show at some place like the Chicago Cultural Center. Koss has exhibited before at various art fairs.
Koss is currently working on a series of photos he has long been taking from the CTA buses that he rides around the city. He calls this his “From the Bus” series.
Never married, he has spent most of his life working as a building maintenance man and still cares for one building. He turned 80 on Christmas Eve and is vital and active. Self-effacing and shy too.
“Am I an artist? Maybe by default,” he says. “I don’t know. This book makes me feel that my persistence has been worthwhile. I also make custom frames and there is some art in doing that, I guess.”
He walks over to a pile on a table in his apartment, grabs a book from it and shows me an autograph. It is a Studs Terkel book, in which he wrote, long, long ago, “For Allan — Here’s to a marvelous cab ride, with a true artist.”