By Daniel Rubin, Inquirer Columnist
POSTED: June 10, 1999
The old man must have been coming home from work. Wojo spotted him at Eighth and Chestnut, walking heavily on a miserable winter night.
Wojo pedaled ahead, then slipped into the shadows, waiting.
“I think he sensed me. He was a little scared. You don’t want to intrude on these people, give them the wrong idea. You want to be discreet. ”
Which is an art when you are a 220-pound, heavily tattooed Mongolian trawling the city on a folding bike.
He calls the photograph “Mystery Man,” a sepia-toned portrait of a man in harried motion, the bent figure and sidewalk lines all a jittery blur.
Another piece of what Wojo calls timeless Philadelphia.
Chomyung “Wojo” Unkow rides around the lonely city at night and in the rain, his Leica slung around his neck, waiting more for a feeling than for a particular image. He’s scouted single buildings for months. “I don’t spend a lot of time shooting,” he says.
His pictures – all bathed in dreamy browns – have the look of an earlier period: boxing matches in a Northern Liberties warehouse, the harlequin lady who sells candies outside the Reading Terminal Market, the saxophonist Nate Wiley soloing on a dead night at Bob & Barbara’s. A collection of Wojo’s work hangs at La Colombe coffeehouse in Manayunk.
“Sometimes,” says the 30-year-old photographer, “I feel as if I’m from another time.”
* “I’ve been wanting to live in this block since high school,” he said Monday morning at Seventh and Chestnut on his way home from a cafe to retrieve his tripod. A backhoe roared by, past a couple in T-shirts proclaiming the “World’s Greatest Dollar Store. ”
“It’s always had this dark feeling. Very desolate at night. I’d say most people who walk down this street watch their backs. ”
Behind an iron gate, the words Ali’s Unltd. Wearable Art were still stenciled on his glass door. He climbed four flights with only a faint blue light suggesting the way, past his four bikes and a bull sculpture from a prior tenant.
At the top floor, he reached his $265-a-month apartment and studio, filled with found furniture, a woven hammock, and a deadwood sculpture hanging over his bed. “I tell people that’s what I came to America on. ”
He has two televisions, which he normally watches with the sound off. “I’m not really interested in what they have to say,” Wojo said. He’s lost about 60 percent of his hearing from time spent in the pits of rock concerts.
He is soft-spoken and built like a medicine ball. He wears a jungle hat and khaki shirt over black shorts. His dark hair is close-cropped. He has rectangular glasses, a mustache, and a thick beard that rides the underside of his chin. His powerful calves are canvases for etchings of giant flies.
A Kalmyk, his people once rode with Genghis Khan. His parents moved to Philadelphia in the early 1950s, settling around Marshall Street near Girard. “My bike is my horse,” he said. “My camera is my arrow. ”
He lived in a group home for much of his school years, after his parents separated, and that, he says, contributes to his sense of being an outsider. At Community College of Philadelphia, he took his first photography course. He has been obsessed with it ever since.
“I’m always by myself. I kind of dip into people’s lives in a way. I’m always searching. I’ve only come to realize that’s normal. That’s why I am a photographer. ”
He has made money doing warehouse work, grave-digging and bicycle messengering, but he spends all his time shooting now. And watching. He pays his bills by taking pictures of injured parties for lawyers and insurance companies. It leaves time for the darkroom and waiting to catch the city in revealing light.
Tripod gathered, he accepted a ride to Bridesburg, where he grew up, heading for the Delair railroad bridge, an 1896 span that crosses the Delaware just south of the Betsy Ross.
It was nearly noon Monday, the temperature pushing the high 90s, the air thick and cottony. You could hear the traffic roaring on the next bridge, past a casino billboard saying, “Life is Short. Make it Sweet. ”
For a half-mile he walked, trains screeching by every 20 minutes. “Little spikes that come out of the shadows,” he said, savoring the view at his feet as he navigated a steel grate between the tracks above the treetops. “It’s just like a playground. I used to fish down there. All those rocks down there are headstones. ”
Finally, about halfway across, he set down his equipment and fixed his camera. The shot was toward New Jersey, under a lace of coal-dusted girders and wire.
Forty-nine feet over the Delaware River, Wojo had found the darkness in the midday sun.