It was 1968 and Mike Evangelist was 14 when the self-described nerd from New Brighton hopped a bus with a buddy and headed to downtown Minneapolis.
To say the 11-mile trip changed his life sounds trite, but it’s true. It just took him 40 years to realize it.
Evangelist was drawn by the promise of a 69-cent meal at the Best Steak House on Hennepin and 8th, but ended up being mesmerized by the city.
“I put a quarter in a bus and I was downtown.” Evangelist says the word slowly, with a certain emphasis, as if downtown were his Magic Kingdom.
For several years, it was.
Evangelist already had decided that he was going to be a professional photographer. After that first trip, he trekked downtown at least once a week for the next five years, to “learn my craft and take pictures of cute girls,” he said.
In addition to photographing plenty of cute girls (including his wife-to-be), he captured the city as it was then, before skyscrapers and skyways: with its sun-lit streets lined with two-story buildings; its quirky array of small shops and grand department stores, and its sidewalks crowded with suit-and-tie-clad businessmen, hippies in bell bottoms, stately older women in their furs.
Evangelist took more than 700 street photos, only some of which he developed (this was, of course, before the digital age), most of which he stashed away in a closet. For decades.
About three years ago, he started to go through his collection and scanned photos, “for my kids,” he said, “if nothing else.” He posted a few on the Facebook page Old Minneapolis, then a few more. The response, he said, was “amazing.”
With the help of local artist and writer Andy Sturdevant and the Minnesota Historical Society Press, Evangelist’s photographs are now a book, “Downtown: Minneapolis in the 1970s,” which was published this month.
We talked with Evangelist about his love for the city, why he’s not a street photographer and why he disses the skyways.
Q: It sounds as if your book came about almost by accident.
A: Sort of. I never had any sense I was creating something cohesive. I was just having fun and learning how to use my camera. As an introvert, the camera helped me participate in life.
Q: You might have the largest private collection of pictures from the early 1970s, yet you say your book doesn’t document downtown. Why?
A: There are books and books and books that could be shot on just one block in the city. This isn’t a comprehensive look at Minneapolis in the 1970s; it’s my random experience of Minneapolis in the 1970s.
Q: In some images, the city looks a little gritty. Was it?
A: For me, there were two downtowns. One had Nicollet at its heart, one had Hennepin. I was amazed how different they were. Nicollet was a nice shopping place, lots of fashion. Hennepin was a bit rougher, with smaller shops, bars, some seedy hotels.
But I really thought of downtown as this gleaming place. There were four major department stores in just a few blocks — Dayton’s, Donaldsons, Powers and Penney’s.
I miss that. I think it’s sad that it’s gone. We’ll never go back to that. Now we have suburban malls and Amazon.
Q: How else has downtown changed?
A: Downtown is different now. It’s mostly people going to work. And the skyways, they’ve changed everything. Where is everyone? There’s no one on the street. They’re up in the rabbit warrens on the second level.
Q: How have you changed?
A: I was this weird guy with a camera — which is true today.
Q: But you never became a professional photographer — until now.
A: I did some commercial photography and shot some weddings, but life had other ideas for me. I worked in tech for a long time, including a stint at Apple.
Q: Even though the term wasn’t used much then, weren’t you a street photographer?
A: To me, street photography — especially today — is about sticking your camera into awkward situations, shooting a picture and running away. I’ve always wanted to capture my own experiences, not steal those of others.
Q: So what do you consider yourself since the publication of your book?
A: A photojournalist? A documentary photographer? I’m a photographer.
Q: You grew up — and have spent most of your life — in the St. Paul suburbs. Why the focus on the city across the river?
A: Minneapolis is very much my city. St. Paul never drew me like Minneapolis.
Q: How does it feel to see your photos come to life in a book?
A: It feels validating. I really did feel I was somehow odd. I participated in life through my camera. But the response has been unbelievable. I’m just grinning the whole time.