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Tuesday, September 3, 2013 / 12:00 AM

Thirty Years in a Flash: Michael DeFilippo Celebrates Three Decades of St. Louis Photography

Thirty Years in a Flash: Michael DeFilippo Celebrates Three Decades of St. Louis Photography

Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson, Blueberry Hill, 1994. Photograph by Michael DiFilippo


My knowledge of Michael DeFilippo dates back to the late ’80s, when I was an intern (and later, a staff writer) at The Riverfront Times, while he was the in-house photographer. Since then, we’ve both moved through various channels of the region’s media landscape, with his work in appearing in a variety of local and national settings. He’ll reflect on those varied projects with a show, “Photos: 1983–2013,” at the Regional Arts Commission on Friday, September 6, running from 7 to 10 p.m. The night will include a raffle and silent auction, with proceeds benefiting Magdalene SaintLouis.

Reaching Mike D. via email, we caught him on assignment in Maine, where he’s finishing up a 48-state project on “artillery in the American landscape,” called Local Ordnance ( After getting the initial send of thorough responses, typed into a phone, we heard back from him with some additional details on his career. First, we’ll highlight our Q & A, and then share the additional comments.

As this is a 30th anniversary show, do you mind sharing any anecdotes on your arrival in St. Louis? Anything from what brought you here, to your impressions of the City as you arrived.

I thought I would pass through St. Louis in November 1979. Planned to travel around the U.S. following the anti-nuclear movement, then write a book about it. I was 23, what did I know? Got involved with an initiative referendum campaign, then got a job, tending bar on Laclede’s Landing. Thought the campaign was a story I could tell, so I kept a journal of my activity. That summer (1980), I went to a hippie and activist gathering in the Black Hills, then rode my bicycle back to St. Louis. Took photos on the way. Some people liked these pictures, but they were far from professional.

Anyway, we lost the campaign, I went back to tending bar, and looked for another left-of-center cause. Found Double Helix, which had some folks from KDNA who were trying to get a radio station on the air, and some video people who were trying to start a cable access TV station. In the meantime, they ran a community media center. I met my future ex-wife there, dabbled in video production, and did whatever they asked. After a trip to Alaska in the summer of 1981, people there thought I was a photographer, so they gave me some assignments. On the way home from a slide show assignment I ran into Ed Italo, who was the RFT photographer. He offered me a job as his assistant. I jumped at the opportunity to make $3 an hour to learn about photography. By 1983, Ed wanted to concentrate on fashion and commercial photography, so he wired me into his spot at the RFT. Ed and Ray [Hartmann] were good friends at the time.

That year, I started my photo business, got married and had a kid. It was a stressful time.

Coming from New Jersey, my idea of a city was shaped by New York City, which is not fair to any other city. When I went downtown, I wondered where everybody was hiding, but it was clean and cheap. After a couple years, I compared St. Louis to a comfortable old sofa. You get in, and the next thing you know, it’s bedtime.

Feel free to correct if I’m wrong (and I’m sure you would, anyway!), but it seems as if this show’s blended through a few different, larger projects or jobs. For starters, maybe we could touch on your years at the RFT. Are the photos in the show primarily from your “Big Picture,” feature, or are they also from general assignments? When were you there, as staff photographer?

I’ve broken this down into three sections. Editorial work from 1983­–1995 will be on one wall. This will be 10 to 12 prints, mostly RFT, one from the Rehabber, and a couple outtakes shot while on assignment for the Post. I freelanced there for a couple years after I got fired from the RFT in December 1994. My first RFT assignment was the St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1983. I was hired full-time in January 1988, which is when the paper moved from Park Ave to the Shell Building.

|Another wall will have 250 8x10 prints from 2005­–2013. I decided to tie in to the 250th anniversary of the founding of St Louis with 250 prints.  Most of these appeared in The Big Picture on Some are outtakes that did not run. All of these prints are auction items, with a starting price of $10 each.

The third wall will have 48 20x14 prints from the Local Ordnance project. This is a portrait of America. There will be one print from each of the 48 Continental United States.

Your Big Picture feature for is also nearing 400 shots. How did you select pieces from this large bank of work?

These are selected pictures that I hope people will want to see, and hopefully bid on. As this is a fundraiser, there are some photos that are portraits or situations that might have merit as photos, but they won’t sell.

The Local Ordnance project is obviously a self-appointed one. Can you give a feeling for how the idea came together? Also, give us a sense of how those 48 pictures will be organized and represented.

In 1995, I started freelancing as a writer/photographer for a couple national trade magazines. During my down time on the road, I tried to do street photography, with limited success. I realized I needed a project to focus on instead of trusting chance. One day I passed the cannon that sits in a pocket park at the intersection of Bellevue and Arlington in Richmond Heights. I had passed that gun for over a decade, but I started to wonder why it was placed in a residential neighborhood. I realized there were situations like this all across the country. I decided that when I traveled I would seek out the cannon or tank or missile, hoping that something would happen in transit to my destination. If it didn’t, I would at least have a photo of a piece of artillery. Last year, I realized I had 32 states represented.

The United States have one thing in common: weapons. This series focuses on the hardware of war: tanks, cannons, missiles. Artillery sits in our parks, playgrounds, cemeteries and lawns. It is in front of courthouses, state capitals and businesses. We love our guns.

I’m writing these answers from Maine, the final state in the series. This year was a big push. I think I will have logged 5,000 air miles and about 10,000 driving miles in 2013 to complete the project for this show.

I will have 48 20x14 inch prints arranged in a single unit on one wall. The prints will be mounted on foam core, but will not be framed. These prints are not for sale, unless somebody wants to buy the entire set for $50,000. I don’t foresee that happening, but if it does, I will give 10 percent of that transaction to Magdalene SaintLouis; 100 percent of the proceeds from the Big Picture auction and print raffle will go to Magdalene.

The prints on raffle will be a mixed bag: Chuck Berry and Johnny Johnson playing together at Blueberry Hill in 1993, Brett Hull in the early 1990s, Liberace, Cool Papa Bell, as well as some prints from the RFT-era Big Picture. Raffle tickets are only $2.50 each.  

Can you talk about the nonprofit with which you're affiliating this show?

Magdalene started in Nashville as a program to help women out of prostitution.  We have a friend—Tricia Roland Hamilton—who is on the board. Reverend Mike Kinman of Christ Church Cathedral downtown is trying to bring this program to St. Louis. I attended their kick-off event. The stories of the women who have gone through the program are very moving.

Photography has been very good to me. It has provided me a fun and interesting career. My kids are educated and employed, so I am in a position to give something back.

Considering the hours and dollars involved in creating the show, what elements would create a “successful” night at RAC?

First, if I get through the evening without insulting or offending anyone.

If folks spend $5, $10, $20, they can have a few drinks, buy a couple raffle tickets, maybe pick up a photo for $10 if nobody tops their bid. I'm up against a Cardinal game and the Clayton art fair. But those things happen all the time. This is a one-shot deal.

If people have fun and money is raised to help Magdalene get off the ground, I'll say it’s a win. I have a number I would like to hit, but I don’t want to jinx it. Then we can all go to the Royale for an after-party. I’d like to mention Steve [Smith’s] participation in this event, as he is donating beer and punch. I am asking people to make donations for drinks.

Following are some additional thoughts, sent the day after our original exchange:

Anyway, looking back, I was involved in some of the cool stuff happening in the city of St. Louis during the course of my career. While in no way responsible for or critical to their success, I had a ringside seat during the early days of the following:

1. The rebirth of community radio and cable access TV through my involvement at Double Helix.

2. The redevelopment of Washington Avenue. I helped Ed Italo build his studio at 1709 Washington in 1982, then kept a studio on the street from 1985–87, and 1995–2012. We still had people in our building at 1709 Washington selling buttons and zippers to the garment industry in the 1980s.

3. The rise of The Riverfront Times, 1983–1994.

4. While I did a lot of photography for the City Museum from about 2006–2009, I thought the documentary project I was shooting at Cementland would continue into this stage of my career. Bob Cassilly’s death knocked everybody back a step, myself included.

5. My work has played a role in the campaign strategy of the Slay administration for eight years.

6. The pro bono photography project I did for St. Patrick Center’s capital campaign in 2000 helped them raise money to move from their location on Biddle Street to their headquarters on Tucker Boulevard. I hope to do the same for Magdalene SaintLouis with the funds generated by this show.

You asked me about my impressions of St. Louis, and I realized early on that this city is accessible. If people want to do something, they have a better shot of getting started and surviving the process than in New York, L.A. or other top-tier cities.

Somebody told me long ago, “Bloom where you are planted.”

You know I have many stock expressions I apply to different situations. One of them relates to the term “freelance.” It comes from the book Ivanhoe. It applies to medieval warriors who sold the service of their lance to whatever lord needed it in battle. For 23 years of my 30-year career, I have been a mercenary. I’ve been lucky that I’ve aligned myself with winners.

“Photos: 1983-2013,” Regional Arts Commission Galleries, 6128 Delmar, 63112. Friday, September 6, reception 7 to 10 p.m. For more info, go to

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