About the Photographer

Mahtesian, John

American, 1915-2002

The son of Armenian immigrants, John Mahtesian was born and raised on the far south side of Chicago. Growing up, he entertained dreams of being an artist but only came to pursue this interest in earnest midway through his life. Mahtesian bought his first camera when he was in his thirties, and he started taking evening classes in photography at the Art Institute of Chicago while working by day at an agricultural machine manufacturer. In 1956 Mahtesian accepted a job as a studio assistant for a commercial photographer in Chicago. While the position allowed him to learn new technical skills, his primary interest was street photography, and he photographed Chicago's Near North Side neighborhood on his lunch breaks. At the age of fifty-three, Mahtesian took a position in the Department of Photography at the Art Institute, where he worked for seventeen years. He continued to photograph in Chicago during this period, although in the 1960s and 1970s he also made nine trips to photograph in Armenia, his country of ancestry.

Mahtesian's photographs of street life in Chicago in the late 1950s and 1960s are characterized by sympathetic scrutiny of human interactions, an eye for fleeting arrangements of figures, and telling juxtapositions of people to their urban surroundings. A number of Mahtesian’s images show bands of children playing in the streets, recalling Helen Levitt's photographs in New York, while his photographs of men in suits stage a poignant look at everyday life as a form of theater. Whether photographing in Chicago or Armenia, Mahtesian followed a similar process: "You travel and see what the camera saw. The wonder of the human mind, heart, wit, and instinct… You might catch yourself saying, 'I'm not a stranger here.'" Mahtesian exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Cultural Center, and the Evanston Art Center. The monograph Journeys: Photographs by John Mahtesian, published in 2000, collects over forty years of his work.