"Pure Serendipity" in Daley Plaza

Dean Sharp hadn't planned on taking photos in Daley Plaza in September of 1967.

Sharp, a student at  Layton School of Art in Milwaukee,  came to Chicago with the intent "just to come down and try to shoot something, maybe along the lake" for his senior project as a photography major.

"I was just passing through the Plaza, and I saw people acting so strangely, I just had to take pictures." he says.

This is how Sharp, 60, of Pilsen, describes the scene of people looking at the 50-foot, 162-ton sculpture by Pablo Picasso that stands in Daley Plaza.

His photographs, now showing at the Michigan Avenue galleries in the Chicago Cultural Center, captured people of all ages looking at the enormous steel sculpture, most of them likely for the first time. The images serve as a reminder that while the Picasso is now, in Sharp's words, "part of the fabric of the city," that was not always the case.

The pictures in the exhibit include shots of elderly couples, nuns, and families.

One focuses on a pair of hip young people standing next to their parked motorcycle across the street from the Plaza.

"Oh, those two, they were just too cool," Sharp says.

The observers' expressions and body language convey a spectrum of reactions.

Some are clearly confused.

"Some are closed to the idea that this could be called art," says Sharp.

To contextualize the whole scene, Sharp also photographed the sculpture by itself, as well as a few people ignoring the enormous structure altogether, including a pair of sailors chatting up two smiling young women.

The untitled sculpture by Pablo Picasso was commissioned by the city and unveiled in August of 1967, one month before Sharp and his camera arrived. Sharp describes the arrival of the Picasso as "a tipping point for Chicago."

The city had been home to numerous monuments and memorials like the Grant sculpture in Lincoln park, or the Balbo Monument in Burnham Park.

But the Picasso was a departure. Chicago "had never seen anything so abstract and large before," Sharp says.

Given the sculpture's massive size and newness, one might expect a photographer to have jumped at the chance to take pictures of the Picasso itself.

Sharp explains that he wanted to capture the fleeting quality of the scene by photographing observers.

"The sculpture's always there, but you'll never see people's faces react in quite the same way again," he says.

Sharp is now able to provide fascinating details about the photographs, down to the kind of stitching on an elderly man's shoe. At the time, though, "it was pure serendipity," he says.

"I know there's something there, but I see what's so great once I actually go and develop the photos," Sharp says.

 Keith Evans, owner of the Watermark Gallery in Pilsen, which hosted a Sharp show last fall, admires the fleeting, moment in time quality that Sharp captured.

Sharp's images appeared to move gallery visitors on a subconscious level, he says.

"You wouldn't have believed the number of people who came in and ended up standing in the same poses as the people in the pictures," Evans says.