Co-creator of Found magazine, Jason Bitner, already had a well-trained eye for curiosities when he walked into B&J’s American Cafe in LaPorte, Ind. Taped to the coffeemaker, the pie case, and all through the diner were vintage studio portraits — people young and old — from the late 1940s through the early ’70s. The owner of the diner found 22,000 photo portraits left behind by the photographer tenant upstairs, and was selling them for 50 cents each.
“It just blew my mind,” says Bitner, “it was the ultimate ‘find’ — this amazing archive of the Midwest. So I decided to stay for a couple of weeks. I went through all twenty two boxes and came up with the photos we published in the book.”
The book, LaPorte, Indiana, collects about 200 of the portraits into a compelling gallery of real people, each face evoking a time and a place and a life story.
TheDEN talked with Jason Bitner about the book and the making of the documentary of the same name, which was screened on campus Thursday evening (Oct. 3).
What was the idea behind the book?
Initially I just thought I’d come across some really beautiful, charming photographs – the book was intended to share that feeling of discovery — you go into the diner and you find these photos and you start thinking, “that looks like my aunt or that looks like DeNiro.” You start seeing things for yourself and imagining backstories to the characters. They’re perfect time capsules, obviously, of the fashions and the haircuts and the eyeglasses. They also are so carefully composed that you look to find that little spark in someone’s eyes – a little crack in the composure.
What was the response?
We did some book launch parties in town and started hearing stories about these people — a lot of them were still around and not hard to track down. The Chicago Tribune and NPR both did some stories about the photos, and we started to dig deeper and learn more about who these people were — and how the town used to be, how things have evolved in the 50 years since the images were taken.
Did anyone object to the photos being published?
I was a little concerned that we were publishing images without permission, but the diner put a copy of the book out on the counter, and townspeople would come in and discover themselves in the book. Thrilled, they’d sign their own photos, like a yearbook – sometimes putting their phone numbers or contact information. This copy of the book became our bible for creating the film. The characters themselves made it easy for us to track them down.
How did you team up with a filmmaker?
Found magazine had been on the public radio program “This American Life,” and soon after, I met Joe Beshenkovsky, the director and editor of the televised version of that show. He loved the book and we kept in touch until both of us had some down time, and decided we should do it. We were the first feature film to have used Kickstarter to raise funds. Kickstarter is so smart, such a good way to use technology — both to raise money for a project and also to establish that you already have an audience before you even begin. We quickly raised money beyond our goal, and since it was in its early stages, Kickstarter used our project as one of their first success stories.
So you went back to LaPorte.
The town was so welcoming. By then we’d made some friends there — the community theater let us use their stage for interviews, and a hotel donated some rooms for as long as we wanted to stay. Some helped us track down people in town and in the neighboring communities. They also helped build a level of trust with the characters. We were out-of-towners and we were asking a lot of questions, so it was helpful to have community members vouch for us. Our intention wasn’t to do an exposé. It was meant to be an earnest and — well, I’d say it was meant to be a sort of love letter to the Midwest. It’s a very American story — people grow up in a hometown, they can’t wait to leave home and see the world, and then when it’s time to settle down and start a family, they often want to go to the place they know best.
You recently moved here to Granville.
I did! Just about a year and a half ago. I grew up in Chicago and my wife grew up in LA, and we were living in Brooklyn when our first daughter was born. My brother lives in Granville and started a propaganda machine about the quality of life here. My father’s family lived in Granville in the 1960s, and my grandmother is buried in the cemetery here, but I’d never been to Granville until 2011. For the people I met making the movie, LaPorte was the place they returned to, where they came to settle. For me, Granville has that same kind of feel — there’s a strong connection even though we didn’t grow up here.