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Songs in requiem

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There's a kind of fellowship of experimental film. While the world at large casts its gaze elsewhere, the community of people who create and appreciate avant-garde cinema has tended to stick together over the years, out there on the frontiers of art.

In 1970, pioneering avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage left his base in the Colorado mountains and made his first visit to Pittsburgh, where his audience included a young Pittsburgh Pressphotographer named Michael Chikiris. Brakhage was best known for his expressionistic approach, but wanted to explore documentary. With Chikiris as his local guide, he shot a series of short films including his now-famous "Pittsburgh trilogy" -- takes on police work, an autopsy and West Penn Hospital.

The two men developed a mutual regard, with Chikiris appearing in a couple of Brakhage's later films and in turn becoming a collector of the filmmaker's work. Brakhage died this past March 9. Chikiris, who had been ill with a liver ailment, died the following day, at age 62.

But the Chikiris-Brakhage connection lives on, and will be remembered when the monthly screening series Jefferson Presents & offers a special showing of selections from Brakhage's epic series of home-movie-like Songs. The rarely screened 8 mm films were part of Chikiris' extensive collection of films, photographic prints and negatives.

Chikiris was personally low-key; many who knew him remained unaware of his death until months later. Yet he was a fixture on the local art scene. "He was one of our earliest patrons," says Amy Woodall of Blue Ruin, an erotic-themed art gallery.

Chikiris's own art was well regarded. "He was an excellent photographer and his photographs were really very beautiful," says filmmaker Victor Grauer. Grauer met Chikiris through their mutual early involvement in Pittsburgh Filmmakers, in the '70s, when Chikiris befriended and photographed prominent visiting experimental filmmakers including Jonas Mekas and Hollis Frampton.

Though he worked in both commercial and art photography, Chikiris was perhaps most prominent as a collector. "He was really known as 'the fiend' because he was such an avid collector," says photographer David Polechko. "That guy was relentless."

A principal enthusiasm was stereoscopy, the simultaneous viewing of two photographic images of the same subject to give the illusion of depth. Linda Benedict-Jones, of the Silver Eye Center for Photography, recalls that Chikiris's antique stereoscopes of the 1870s railroad labor wars were featured in the Carnegie Museum's 1997 Pittsburgh Revealed show. He also donated a display of 19th-century portraits that highlighted Silver Eye's 2001 Pittsburgh Collects show.

"His collecting taste was as varied as the appearance of his apartment," says Benedict-Jones. "He was one of the champions. He firmly believed that photography was an important art form and he was fairly vocal about it."

"He was not only a good photographer but was a good historian [of photography]," says Bruce Klein, president of the board of Photo Antiquities, a museum located across East Ohio Street from Chikiris's longtime home on the North Side. "He was a world of knowledge. & He helped us out a tremendous amount throughout the years."

According to his obituary in the National Stereoscopic Association journal Stereo World, Chikiris also made and sold 3-D views of steel mills and Pittsburgh sports figures, and built stereoscopic viewers.

Chikiris, who photographed for the Press into the 1980s, was similarly engaged collecting experimental films, as evidenced especially by his archive of Brakhage's Songs, which represent an important phase in the artist's career following his groundbreaking early films.

Brakhage started shooting the Songs (all of which are silent) on 8 mm after his 16 mm gear was stolen in 1964, but embraced the smaller format as a way to inexpensively create a poetic cinematic diary of everyday life. Song I, for instance, is a portrait of his wife, Jane. Song XVII wittily juxtaposes a stained-glass cathedral with a movie house, while XX studies fire, water and majestic, fog-shrouded trees. A series of "song traits" portrays friends and family, including mythic images of a man soldering; a few moments with Jonas Mekas; and a study of an infant on all fours that's distinguished by sudden shifts from color to black and white and beautiful close-ups of its chubby hands.

In all, through 1970 Brakhage made 30 Songs, which he saw as a single, serial work. The two-hour Jefferson Presents & show will sample liberally from them, a fitting memorial to both Brakhage and one of his biggest local admirers.

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