Chi Lives: Ed Woehl goofs off with cameras

Tiffany Bauer
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by Molly Miller | July 04, 1991

If you stand on the sidewalk and cup your hands up to the window of Ed Woehl's Photo Supply store, at 1800 N. Honore, it's possible, with some concentration, to sort out recognizable objects from the stacks and piles crammed inside: metal lunch boxes, wire-screen flyswatters, camping gear, fishing rods, kitschy signs, clothes, fans, curtains, clocks. Close to 20 walking canes hang on a rope suspended from the ceiling. And there's the album cover with John Lennon and Yoko Ono staring lovingly into each other's eyes stashed carelessly in between roller skates, a wooden goose, a plastic turtle, and a thing that looks like a faucet.

Though few of these treasures seem related to photo equipment, flashing signs above the windows and doors promise "Press, Movie View and Still Cameras," "Used Cameras, 8 mm projectors, $15 and up." Stashed among Ed Woehl's other collectibles are tripods, lenses, editors, plus hundreds of photographs, most taken with Woehl's handmade wide-angle cameras, stuck in books, boxes, and files. The photos are long, skinny panoramas that bring back buildings long ago torn down and people Woehl used to know from Maxwell Street, some of whom, he'll tell you, are dead or in jail for shooting landlords. He takes a lot of photos with a 1940 Mercury camera he restored, and it's not one he'll sell. But he says he's sold most of the wide-angle cameras he's hand-built in the last 20 years, to photo students, professional photographers, and collectors who've heard about him through word of mouth.

"About 20 years ago, I got tired of looking for a wide-angle camera. I couldn't find what I wanted, so I just made one. I chopped up some old cameras and made 'em longer. I've made 10 or 12 cameras since then," Woehl explains, but adds modestly, "I don't know nothing about photography when it comes down to it. I just goof around. I got a lot of these kids that come in here. They know what they're doing."

Woehl and his feisty black pup, Princess, spend their mornings "prospecting" in resale shops, flea markets, and "different places"--he's hesitant about revealing his sources--looking for rare or unusual cameras, looking for cameras to use for parts, and looking for more odd objects to add to his piles and stacks. A photo student from the Art Institute brought Princess to Woehl after he lost his beloved terrier Champ--or Shampoo, as he sometimes called him--to old age. At night Princess curls up on her pillow in the back of the shop where the two eat and sleep, while Woehl takes the cameras apart, swapping parts around and restoring them to working order.

Ed Woehl is a stout man, with large ears and ruddy round cheeks. He wears heavy work pants of the Sanforized variety, Sanforized shirts, wide suspenders, and work boots, and he keeps his cap pushed back from his forehead so thin tufts of straight white hair fall out around the edges. His motto is, "If I want something, I'll make it if I can." He's made several jackets for Princess to wear in the winter. He's decorated them with patches featuring slogans characteristic of his quirky sense of humor: "Ex Lax," "Try it, you'll like it," "I'm a little stinker." He makes plastic name tags and plastic key chains. He's rigged up his cane with a flashlight that points down at the sidewalk for when he walks Princess after dark. Because he's hard of hearing he's also rigged up the shop door with a mechanical device that trips off a recording of Christmas carols when the door opens.

Woehl was raised in Chamberlain, South Dakota, where his love affair with photo equipment began in 1939, when he took a photo class while working on a Civilian Conservation Corps camp there. During the war he built base camps in Alaska, where he says he continued to "goof off with cameras." Then the Army moved him to Georgia to be a demolition instructor, which explains the Christmas carols. When he was released from the Army, he came to Chicago; he opened his store in 1955. He also began selling his photo equipment on Maxwell Street.

"He's a good source because he recognizes collectible cameras," says Jim Berglund, a customer and friend of Woehl's. Berglund calls himself a "serious amateur" and says he has a room at home full of stuff he's bought from Woehl. On Saturdays Berglund arrives at Woehl's place mid-morning and the two experiment with Woehl's cameras. One photo Woehl has stashed in a book shows Jim Berglund standing beside Jim Berglund outside the store. Another, taken by Berglund, shows Woehl's torso facing the camera, attached to a lower body walking away from the camera. "He's an interesting guy," Berglund says, chuckling at the photo. "That's why I hang around with him. We brainstorm, we invent things."

The two generally hold their brainstorming sessions over breakfast on Sunday, when Woehl returns from his weekly trip to Maxwell Street. Though Woehl still goes there at 6 AM every Sunday, he doesn't take his wares anymore. He does take a shopping cart, an aluminum step stool, and a camera or two. The shopping cart is for his prospecting finds and the stool is for standing on to capture a better photo. "You get up on top of that and you're above the ground; it keeps your pictures from being flat across."

Woehl says it's too much trouble to drag all his stuff to Maxwell Street anymore. "When you made a buck selling down there, you earned it." Now he waits for people to come to him. "On some days four or five people will come in all at once. Some days no one comes in," he says. But what he doesn't know is how many people pause outside his window, maybe on their way to the Get Me High, and wonder if there really is photo equipment in there, behind the stacks and piles.

Woehl's is open 11 to 6:30 Monday through Saturday (except for Wednesday, when it's closed), and 11 to 2 Sunday. The number is 276-2280.
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