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Photographer Eric Strom Captures Chicago History In Real Time

Written by on May 4, 2023

Photographer and co-founder of GlitterGuts Eric Strom uses photography as a way to connect to his community and archive moments in time. 

As the adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words — but for Pilsen photographer Eric Strom, they are worth even more. Growing up, he recalls always being documented at family happenings and during big achievements by his mother, the family picture-taker. This inspired him to start documenting his life, from grade school to high school and into his adulthood, eventually studying photography at Columbia College. 

Known at Columbia for hosting underground parties in DIY spaces, Strom got the idea to create a photo booth when a friend one time set up a space to take prom photos of partygoers. Toward the end of 2007, with the help of co-founder Sarah Joyce, Strom started what is now GlitterGuts. What started as a nameless pop-up “photo booth” at parties and events has turned into a business taking photos all over Chicago for more than a decade. 

Their photography business was founded rooted in consent of the subjects, with the goal of creating a space where people have the choice of expressing themselves freely and with zero judgment. By creating this space, they capture the essence of what makes Chicago the city it is. 

“I think, especially in subcultures and the counterculture, a lot of people don’t have … great photos of themselves,” Strom explained. “I want to provide these for people, I want to make people feel good about themselves, too.”

Eric Strom started GlitterGuts in 2007; what began as a pop-up “photo booth” became a business consensually documenting Chicago’s underground and counterculture party scene for more than a decade. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

In many ways, Strom is not only a photographer but an archivist and historian. He feels passionate about capturing Chicago’s counterculture scene because of its lack of documentation. With over a decade of capturing the underground life through the city, his photos are more than cute pictures of eccentric parties, but pieces of history that can be shared and experienced years in the future.

“The big picture side of things is … I’m participating in a part of history,” Strom said. “These parties that seem very small …[are] part of a mosaic of what has become Chicago culture, American culture, worldwide culture.” 

Strom’s Instagram, @GlitterGutsy, serves as a living archive, as he houses photos taken in booths he has created and shares moments of joy with a greater community. In this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Eric Strom discusses how to get the perfect shot on set, connecting the dots between images and stories, and his familial connection to Chicago. 

What is GlitterGuts?

GlitterGuts is a portrait project that mostly takes place in bars and parties. Chicago’s such a blue-collar artist city, in that so many of the people who are at the events are also creating their own art. It’s like a feedback loop of everyone in the room being an artist and a creator in their own right. Whereas I’ve been in other cities where it’s been more of a clear-cut division between creator and spectator. It doesn’t work as much, when all the focus is on the stage. I’ve always been more about the focus being on the dance floor, or just the people milling about in the back of the room, more than just where the spotlight is. Even when I’m there to pay money to watch a thing, I’m often getting pulled away from the thing … because of where all the people are. 

How did you get into photography?

My mom was always kind of the family photographer, and she wasn’t a photographer by trade or anything. There were always cameras around and always film around. I had just kind of taken to it, and I liked documenting just my life in school. I started in grade school and high school, and … kind of took over the same role that she did, of documenting my friends and then getting two copies made at Walgreens so I could keep one and hand one out to everybody. 

Eric inside the GlitterGuts studio, filled with costumes, props, backdrops and photo equipment. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

Where are you from?

I’m from here in Chicago, grew up in Rogers Park. A lot of Rogers Park was connecting with people, getting into trouble and then going to the beach or the diner: Heartland Cafe, which is now gone, which I never thought ever would go away. It had been around since the ’70s, so when I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, that seemed like forever. It seemed like it was set in stone. But it was such a great place to meet people and hang outside and ignore the show half the time and … just get into some rabble rouser-ness and then walk over to the beach after it closed, or maybe to the Oasis when I was old enough to drink. That is a terrible 4 a.m. Loyola bar that I think still exists — I’ll say terrible in a wonderful way, like most 4 a.m. bars. 

Where do you live now?

I’ve been in Pilsen for a while, about 15 years. I’ve been coming down to Pilsen pretty much since the ’90s for gallery shows and punk shows. It’s always been a part of my life, and it’s kind of part of the family history in that I live three blocks from the corner store that my grandfather used to own, which is on the part of Maxwell Street that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a soccer field. Every now and then I’m riding my bike and smelling hot dogs and passing by the little honorary Maxwell Street statues and being like, “Okay, I’m in touch with my American ancestry here.” 

I come from people who are from Chicago and love Chicago, and I stupidly fell in love with a lot of very Chicago art forms. I was intensely in love with improv comedy and slam poetry, and ended up staying here for school. I was like, “Okay, what can I actually learn in school to turn into a career out of my various hobbies and likes?” I really liked the writing and photography programs at Columbia, so I started studying photography there. 

How did you conceptualize GlitterGuts?

When I started doing GlitterGuts, I was throwing a lot more parties myself. I was a DJ at the time, and I was looking for things that I could do to make my parties more fun. I had thrown a prom party at a little DIY space I used to live at, and one of my friends did traditional prom portraits, turned one of the bedrooms into a prom portrait booth. And I was like, “Okay, what if we do this for not a formal event? What if we do this for anything we do?” 

The counterculture is where I feel the most comfortable, and always have. I think, especially in subcultures and the counterculture, a lot of people don’t have, at least historically, great photos of themselves. I want to provide these for people, I want to make people feel good about themselves, too. 

When did GlitterGuts start?

We started GlitterGuts at the end of 2007. And it didn’t have a name, at the time, it was just either taking down people’s email addresses or writing down for them my Flickr account. We got our name in 2008, so about 15 years. It’s a pop up in the very real, very literal sense of the word. I like to have a tiny environment that I have control over, and that’s separate from everything else in the room, so that people can opt to go in or opt to stay completely away from, because it’s a consent-based business, and photographs and photography makes some people very nervous. I like being able to be like, “We’re here when you’re ready for us. And if you’re never ready for us, we’ll just wave as we walk past each other … no pressure.”

People are often like, “What do I do?” And I’ll usually try to tell people to start out with a very serious look, because that is surprisingly easy and surprisingly difficult. Most people can do it, but can’t hold it. I think being serious … or telling people to look serious is a good way to get people out of their head very briefly. There have been times when I’ve felt a little cheekier and I’ll be like, “You just won a million dollars. What’s your reaction? Okay, you just realized that you got the number wrong on your lottery ticket, you did not win a million dollars. What’s your reaction now? Okay, everyone’s being chased by a duck, what’s your face?” I like to keep it simpler … because I’ll usually do four shots to be … like a traditional photo booth. And I’ll be like, “Do one serious. Now do one smiling. Now this one’s all you.” And people will come out of their shell a little bit. “And now this one’s just you.” And people really show who they are, with that last one, if they’re in a comfortable place. 

I think that a lot of these are great time capsules of what Chicago was like, what different fashions were like. For me, 10 years ago doesn’t seem like a long time at all. But some of it is so iconic, just looking back. People like seeing themselves and their peers, and maybe at this point, some of their older relatives who were out doing this before they were. 

“I think, especially in subcultures and the counterculture, a lot of people don’t have … great photos of themselves. I want to provide these for people, I want to make people feel good about themselves,” Eric expresses. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

Do you see yourself as an archivist?

I 100% see myself as an archivist. It’s always been important to me. The big picture side of things is I think I’m participating in a part of history. And I think these parties — that seem very small at the time, like, this is just a Friday night — is part of a mosaic of what has become Chicago culture, American culture, worldwide culture. There’s a lot of space in my brain being taken up by when I’m looking through old posts, and seeing what pictures to put up, be like, “Oh, this couple ended really badly, I shouldn’t put pictures of this couple.” They’re not people I know, but I am making these connections really brief. And that’s what my brain is good at holding. There are also a lot of people who aren’t with us anymore, and I’ve been contacted for funerals and memorials and stuff like, “Hey, you have the last good picture of my sister, my aunt, my brother, my boyfriend, my husband, can you find this?” 

I would be taking care of the archive no matter what, because I feel like it is my life’s work. But it’s also felt really good to be able to provide those things for people, who come and remember those pictures and ask about them for an important time in their life, and maybe an important and very difficult time in their life. It’s all I want to do. I feel naturally good at it. I love it. Whenever I think I’m getting tired of it, I have an experience that kind of shows me how much I love doing this and being around people and being around music and nightlife. Not everybody is like this, but I’m very, very much like, “Remember the good times.” Not discount the bad times or the bad people, but it’s like, I can look at a picture of myself and someone who I’ve fallen out of touch with or fallen out of love with and been like, “That was a great night we had together.” 

Stay up to date with Eric Strom by visiting the GlitterGuts website, and check out Eric and GlitterGuts on Instagram.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago — enriching us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Written introduction by Joshua X. Miller

Photography by Ari Mejia, edited by Morgan Ciocca

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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