Picture Perfect, An interview of Patric McCoy

Photos Courtesy of Patric McCoy

Patric McCoy is a retired environmental scientist in the Air and Radiation Division of the U.S. EPA in Chicago. McCoy has been collecting contemporary African American art for over five decades. His collection has over 1,300 pieces of fine art. In 2003, he co-founded Diasporal Rhythms, a not-for-profit arts organization of art collectors from Chicago’s African American communities. 

Patric McCoy: Take My Picture features a selection of 50 striking photographic portrayals of gay Black men taken on the streets of Chicago in the 1980s. McCoy, who traveled around the city, often on his bike, always with his camera, will show his photos in an exhibit at Wrightwood569 on April 14-July 15, 2023. 

“In creating this collection, I was taking pictures of the social environment of downtown Chicago,” McCoy said. “Black men were sleeping and living in the park and hobo camps. During that time, I captured that street environment where black people spent a lot of time, and we were very comfortable being in the downtown area. It was almost like our neighborhood. We went from working, socializing, and going to the movies and partying in the loop.”

In a recent conversation, Patric McCoy shares his love for photography, how the Chicago loop was the mecca for Black gay men, and the backstory of Take My Picture.    

PrideIndex (PI): I am conversing with the photographer, Mr. Patric McCoy. How are you today?

Patric McCoy (PM): I’m doing pretty good. 

PI: First, I’d like to ask you about yourself and the journey that has brought you to where you are thus far. 

PM: I was born and raised in Chicago. I have always lived on the south side. My parents were artistically inclined. My father was an amateur photographer, so we had paintings and photographs in our home. I did not choose that path; I studied chemistry and eventually became an environmental scientist for 30-plus years. I was actively collecting artwork and became a major collector. I was also an avid cyclist commuting to work in the loop from the South Shore neighborhood. I would go to almost all the major communities for African Americans daily on the bicycle and carrying a camera. And because I was there in the 1980s, I was teaching myself photography by having the camera with me everywhere and taking pictures. As I moved throughout the city on the South side, I asked people I saw on the way if I could take their pictures. I took a lot of pictures, mainly of men. It would become a major activity of mine in the South Loop, where I worked. 

PI: Were you formally trained as a photographer? If so, where you attended school? 

PM: No. The essence of this show at Wrightwood 659 is how I taught myself photography. So I learned photography by having people ask me to take their photographs. One of the places I frequented was the Rialto Tap, a block and a half around from around the corner from my job. It was known as an undercover gay bar. I’ve spent much time taking pictures of young men hanging out in the loop.

PI: When I think of the photographers at the club, I think of that straw chair and the guy who charges $10 per picture. Sometimes they flirt, and sometimes the photographers get hit on too. Were you like this?

PM: I was unlike those folks taking pictures in the clubs for sale. And the last part of the question, did anybody hit on me? I was in the club to be hit on, and I was hitting on folks. (Laughs). 

Photo of Patric McCoy displaying his art collection

PI: How did you determine which photos were important to include in this show? 

PM: I did all this photography in the mid-80s, and then I stopped. The 1990s was a whole different environment. People were addicted to crack, stole, robbed, and broke into cars. That made it impossible to ride around with a camera on my neck. I put all the negatives I had accumulated in the 80s in a box where they sat for 20 years.

In 2008, a friend gave me a film scanner, so I scanned and began to pick through the images, picked the ones I liked, and put them on a CD. I passed it out to artist friends, but not much came out of that. In 2016, I was at an artist’s reception when John Neff approached me, saying he was working as an assistant curator for Art AIDS America. The exhibit was coming to Chicago, and he was looking for a Black artist who did photography in the 1980s. The show didn’t have a lot of representation of people of color from that period. He looked at my photos and picked five to put in the show. It was the first time people paid attention to my photographs. It blew my head. 

I spent a couple of years with John grinding through the images for a potential book. We appealed to the Applewood Foundation for help. They said we couldn’t do a book, but they gave us a show because they saw my photographs. It’s been a pleasure working with the Wrightwood 650 staff. The more images they saw, the more excited they were. 

I realized that I could not be the one to pull the photos for the show. I chose a friend, Juarez Hawkins, to be the curator. We’ve been friends for 20-plus years, and I knew she understood the lifestyle, so she picked 50 images out of the thousand-plus images. She made some excellent choices for this show. This show will challenge the present concept of queer because, to this new generation, queer is the prevailing concept that people identify with. The era I came from in taking these pictures, queer, was the antithesis. They did not want to be queer, I.E., identifiable. They wanted to be undercover. Essentially, I’m right there in front of you. I’ve looked just like you, but I’m doing what I want to do, interacting with men without labels.

PI: Will this exhibit include pictures of former lovers, boyfriends, etc.? 

PM: Yeah. Some of them have died from HIV/AIDS and so forth. I did not direct Juarez to do that. 

PI: What should people expect to see in this show? What would you like them to retain once they leave?

PM: We plan to have me talk about my experiences and the images; who are these people? What are the backstories? We plan to have a panel of older people (my generation) who remember Rialto’s. There’s a plan to have younger people talk about being queer from their perspective. From then on, we plan to have DJ Mike Ezebukwu spinning a music playlist from back then. 

What would I want people to retain once they leave? The social ability of black people, especially black men at that time. They were very engaging, not anxious or suspicious of each other. We were capable of embracing each other’s personalities and being without first thinking that somebody was going to throw shade for this or that silly reason. 

Black gay men were having a good time and worked around a misconception that we couldn’t get AIDS. So, we were partying until the late 1980s when we noticed our friends were suddenly disappearing. You’d hear about a funeral, then another and that’s when it started to become problematic and of great concern. So, I have photographs of Black gay men living without realizing we were amid a severe pandemic.

PI: What’s next for Patrick McCoy? 

PM: In October, I will have some activities associated with my art-collecting organization, Diasporal Rhythms. I will be doing a fundraising activity one day in May to raise money to help get my book started. I must clarify that any sale of photographs from the May fundraising event is separate from my Take My Picture show at 659 Wrightwood, opening on April 14, 2023.  

For more information on Patric McCoy: Take My Picture, click here