In the eye of the storm Featured

10:03am EDT July 22, 2002

If the flamboyant Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is Manhattan, photographer Chuck Gentile is Brooklyn.

Even as he approaches middle age, one can detect in him the fast-talking kid who might once have convinced half his neighbors to buy his special blend of lemonade for two bucks a glass, simply by wearing them down with his staccato chatter.

His photo studio, which he shares with another photographer in a low-rise, mostly residential neighborhood straddling Cleveland and Lakewood, is a study in contrasts. Plain as can be on the outside, inside it's outfitted to the teeth with the tools of his trade, from sophisticated $1,000 lighting units to a small library on photography.

"This isn't a walk-in business," he says of commercial photography, and he prefers that the nondescript veneer betray no hint of what goes on inside. "It's need-to-know."

The 39-year-old has been in training for his trade much of his life. Even as a school boy in North Olmsted, where he still lives, Gentile recalls being deeply impressed by a visiting photographer for the now-defunct Cleveland Press. While in high school, he walked in off the streets and landed photo assignments for the same newspaper. He later spent a couple of years attending Ohio State University, but finished at the Ohio Institute of Photography in Kettering.

Ironically, about five years ago, he produced a poster for Cleveland Tomorrow, the group of leaders of the 50 largest institutions in Cleveland. It depicted a "Ziggy" cartoon superimposed on his skyline shot of Cleveland, and resulted from a collaboration with "Ziggy" creator Tom Wilson, whom he calls a "buddy" from his days at American Greetings.

His fight against the Rock Hall has become something of a rallying point among the creative community, especially in the photography trade. The American Society of Media Photographers, the trade group which has supported him throughout the case, is even using it as a recruiting tool. A full-page ad ASMP ran in a glossy photographers' magazine in September quotes Gentile as saying, "I knew this was a case that could affect every photographer in a big way, but the truth is I couldn't pay lawyers to fight it. That's where ASMP came in."

It goes on to say that "while Chuck Gentile has won a major battle in his trademark suit with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the war is not over. ASMP is going to be with him until it is."

He notes in that ad, as he has throughout the case, that he took his now-famous photograph from a public sidewalk. He even claims to have received assistance from a Rock Hall security guard to help him move some pylons out of the range of his viewfinder. And if one looks closely at the finished poster, you can see the tiny figure of a guard standing unobtrusively against a marble slab which bears the name of the museum.

"I told him, 'don't move, you'll mess up my shot.'"

He never could have imagined, of course, the kind of mess in which the photo would eventually embroil him.