From Chicago to Paris and Back

How does a young man from the Midwest, lacking focus and limited means, produce a photography book of a world famous cemetery in Paris?

In 1976 I wandered into a now defunct Chicago photography store, Helix, and purchased a Nikkormat 35mm SLR camera with a 50mm lens. At the time, I was marginally interested in photography, but I needed a camera to document my artwork. After briefly looking at the manual, I realized I needed formal instruction to utilize the full potential of my $500 investment.

After two weeks of Photo 1 classes at Chicago's Columbia College, I was hooked. The dual nature of photography appealed to my interests in art and science, but I lacked the income to fund full-time studies. My instructor, Jim Gail, gave me a position as a teaching assistant in the photo studio. Working as a TA, supplemented by a part-time job in a commercial photography studio, made it possible to attend Columbia College full time.

My days at Columbia were energizing, including lively Saturday afternoon conversations with Bob Edmunds. Bob taught a film lighting course and stopped into the photo studio to kill an hour while his students tackled one of his lighting assignments. During one of our conversations, Bob asked what where my plans after graduation. Spur of the moment, I blurted out, "I'd love to visit Europe, but I'm not sure how I would make that happen." Bob quickly responded, “I can help you get a scholarship, probably in Holland. Just check back with me during your senior year. I'll see what I can do.”

The first three years flew by. I ran into Bob in the hall, reminding him of his generous offer. Without hesitation, he promised to get on it right away. Several weeks later, he popped his head into his film history class and motioned me into the hall. With a twinkle in his eye, he asked if I would like to go to Paris for a year-long scholarship.

My fate was sealed; I wrapped up my last year at Columbia and landed in Paris in 1981.
The initial experience in Paris was rocky. At midnight I arrived at my assigned "dormitory" only to find no one knew who I was or what I was there for. The night attendant took mercy on me and put me in a room with a group of Indian students with the caveat that the arrangement was temporary. After several weeks, I was relocated to a high-rise student dormitory in Massy Palaiseau, a 45 minute train ride outside Paris.

The challenges of living in an unfamiliar culture were daunting. I lived in a roach infested room, the only English speaking student in a building filled with students from ex-French colonies. Baffled by a foreign language and customs, simple tasks became daunting, and before long, I felt adrift and homesick.

My life took a quick turn for the better when John Broder, a reporter with the Detroit News on a sabbatical appeared at my door. We became fast friends and he introduced me to Suzanne Wolfe, an expat American lawyer specializing in international business law. Due to frequent travel, she needed someone to keep an eye on her precocious 12 year old son, Charlie. I landed back in Paris on Rue Molitor in the 16th arrondissement as her new au pair.

As the months passed, I became more acclimated and slowly embraced life "Parisian". My girlfriend and Columbia student Paula (my wife of 40 years), joined me. Paris was bursting with possibilities. Joni Mitchell’s song "I was a free man in Paris. I felt unfettered and alive…" echoed in my ears as we explored the wonders of Paris. I wandered, by chance, into Pere Lachaise, enthralled by its atmospheric mystery and visual complexity. I found the historically rich older sections in varying stages of decay the most intriguing. Creating photographic order out of the ruins was an appealing challenge. I shot some handheld 35mm photos with plans to return for more serious work. Unable to arrange for the necessary documents to work with a 4x5 view camera and tripod, I finished my stay in Paris, determined to return to photograph Pere Lachaise in earnest.

Back in Chicago, I started an architectural photography studio with another Columbia College student. The business flourished; I married, became a landlord, and raised two sons. Wrapped up in the responsibilities of daily life, returning to Pere Lachaise lost its urgency. I chanced upon an article in the Chicago Tribune documenting the controversy over relocating some of the remains buried in the cemetery. It dawned on me that the ancient sections could be modernized, losing some of the potential that attracted me in the first place. At that moment, I decided to return to Pere Lachaise and complete the project I had begun 13 years earlier. In 1994 I returned with an assistant for three weeks and shot over 150 images. We stayed in a cramped room one block from the rear entrance, the first to arrive and last to leave each day. Back in Chicago, I archived the film and continued my career as a commercial photographer.

Over the following years, I managed to print select images and exhibited the work several times. For a photographer publishing a book of your work creates a larger audience. I had several close calls with book publishers, but they fell short. By using Kickstarter’s crowdfunding site I partially funded the self publication of Pere Lachaise.
Shortly after, I suffered a minor heart attack requiring 2 stents. My physical recovery went smoothly, but for a year I was distracted by the psychological impact of facing my mortality. With renewed focus and energy, I found a book designer, printer, commissioned essays, and edited/printed final proof images with books in hand in Spring of 2015.

Through a series of twists and turns that started with the purchase of a camera, I started a family, embarked on a career in commercial photography, and finally published my first book of photographs.

I didn’t realize it at the time but Columbia College redirected my life. All that’s good springs from those student days.

Mark Ballogg

Pere LaChaise Book

Pere Lachaise Book Prices:

12" x 12" Book — $60.00

2-Books — $100.00

12" x 12" Book with Slipcase — $75.00

2-books with Slipcases — $130.00

+$6.00 shipping/handling (per book) to US; email for international shipping quote

To purchase limited edition prints please email