Photo Opportunity A little-Known Baltimore artist snapped up the chance to be the shutterbug behind 'Pecker.' It might just be the break he's been waiting for.

September 28, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

Toward the end of John Waters' new film, "Pecker," a New York critic visiting a Hampden bar offers a loud toast to the house: "To the end of irony!" he declares.

It is the kind of smug comment you might expect from some snobby Big Apple glitterati. But of course (how ironic!) it's not even true.

"Pecker," an urban fable about a painfully naive Hampden teen-ager who becomes the darling of New York's arty set, abounds in ironies.

For instance: Pecker, the film's eponymous hero, toils at a drudge-work day job while he indulges his obsession for snapping pictures of his family, friends and neighborhood with a cheap camera that he carries everywhere. Then his pictures are discovered by a New York gallery owner, who turns him into an instant celebrity.

The pictures in the film purportedly taken by Pecker were in fact made by a young Baltimore photographer named Chuck Shacochis, who snapped them between takes on Waters' set.

Shacochis' pictures are so good that, if there were any justice in the world, they would be exhibited in a tony New York gallery, where a well-known critic could rave over them and turn Shacochis into an instant celebrity.

Alas, Shacochis is still drudging away in provincial obscurity at his day job in a Baltimore photo supply shop, hoping against hope that life will imitate art and bring him the fame and fortune Waters bestowed on his fictional counterpart.

"It could happen," Shacochis said wistfully last week during an interview conducted on a quick break from his job at Service Photo Supply on North Charles Street.

"John [Waters] has been very gracious in seeing that we get our recognition for the work. I'm going up to New York for a show of the work at a restaurant in Soho this week, so hopefully I'll make some connections there."

Shacochis, 29, met Waters through a mutual friend in New York (( whom Waters had initially approached to take the still photographs for the film, which premiered in Baltimore Sept. 16, and opened nationwide last week. The friend couldn't do it, so he recommended Shacochis for the job.

Waters arranged to meet Shacochis and was so impressed by his work that he decided to hire the virtually unknown young photographer.

"I guess you could say I jumped at [the opportunity]," Shacochis recalled. "I mean, I figured this would probably be my only chance ever to photograph strippers, rats having sex and celebrities all in one project."

But, hey, that's irony.

Take, for example, a shot made midway into the film, when Pecker and his kleptomaniac homeboy, Matt, crawl upstairs from their basement darkroom and surprise the hero's sugar-addicted little sister filching spoonfuls of the stuff in the kitchen while their parents sleep.

In the movie, Waters plays the scene as just another tasteless gag. But Shacochis' grainy, black and white photo, with its deliberately distressed surface, records a more disturbing, ambiguous reality that suggests the horrible self-degradation of adult addiction by contrasting it with childhood innocence.

Or take the shot of newspaper heiress and former Symbionese (( Liberation Army kidnap victim Patty Hearst, who makes a cameo appearance in "Pecker" as an insufferably uptight art collector.

At a chi-chi reception following Pecker's New York gallery opening, the hapless photographer manages to catch Hearst in a tacky moment as she adjusts her decolletage. Waters milks the scene mostly for its potential as an adolescent dirty joke. But Shacochis' photo captures some of the sadness of faded beauty and remorse for what might have been. It's a perceptive portrait of the once-notorious socialite, the visual insights transcending the limited purpose the picture serves in the movie.

In this respect, Shacochis' work on "Pecker" is reminiscent of New York artist Cindy Sherman's famous "Untitled Film Stills" of the 1970s.

Sherman made her reputation by photographing what appeared to be studio production stills from 1950s-era B movies, but what were in fact carefully staged self-portraits that explored Hollywood's conventional definition of female gender and identity during the period.

(Sherman herself makes a sly cameo appearance in the film as one of New York's ubiquitous art world cognoscenti.)

"My style is not straight photographic style," Shacochis says. "I paint and draw as well, and that has had an impact on my work. So my photographs are more illustrative. I manipulate my prints in the darkroom -- printing through areas or lightening or darkening sections of the image. I also let a lot of accidents happen. Accidents are a source of creative ideas."

Shacochis, a Baltimore native who moved to Harford County as a teen-ager, was trained at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and lived in Hampden during the three years he was a student there.

He left the institute before graduating to try to pursue a professional career. Things have been up and down since. "It's tough to make it as a photographer in Baltimore," he says.

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