Retired CPD officer-turned-photographer gets first exhibit at 70

Peter Bella, 70, says you don’t really see anything until you get out and walk around.

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A photo from Peter Bella’s gallery show “Chicago in Black and White” at The Dime gallery.

A photo from Peter Bella’s gallery show “Chicago in Black and White” at The Dime.

Courtesy of Peter Bella

Former Chicago Police Officer Peter Bella patrolled Chicago neighborhoods for almost 30 years, but it wasn’t until retiring and exploring them on foot that he discovered their real beauty.

“I spent years in the front seat of a car driving in square circles around places like Little Village and Pilsen, but you don’t see anything until you get out and walk,” Bella said, adding that every neighborhood is different.

“I don’t care what anyone says, we are not one city, we are 77 cities,” he said, referring to the number of official community areas in Chicago. “They all have their own culture and flavor.”

Bella, 70, retired in 2007 from the Chicago Police Department after more than 29 years on the job, but he hasn’t spent his retirement talking about the romanticized glory days of the past. Instead, he’s worn a number of hats. He attended culinary school for a bit and then wrote a food blog. He turned a six-week gig at the Driehaus Museum into a job as a guide that lasted more than five years, continued writing a blog focused on Chicago, and all along, continued perhaps his strongest passion — photographing random people, things and places around the city where he was born and raised.

A self-portrait by Peter Bella

A self-portrait by Peter Bella

Courtesy of Peter Bella

Although Bella has taken thousands of pictures over the years, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that his longtime friend, Chicago-based artist Tony Fitzpatrick, started talking to him about putting together a show of his work. The pandemic interrupted plans, but about six months ago Fitzpatrick challenged him to step things up, resulting in Bella’s first show titled “Chicago in Black and White,” which opens June 2 at The Dime Chicago, 1513 N. Western Ave.

Fitzpatrick, who said he’s known Bella for three decades and often would see him at art shows, may have recognized Bella’s talent before he did.

Peter Bella photo show

What: “Chicago in Black and White” by Peter Bella
Where: The Dime Chicago, 1513 N. Western Ave.
When: Opens Friday, 7 to 10 p.m.

“I was aware of his photography for years and thought, ‘This guy is a really good street photographer. I wonder if he knows he’s an artist,’” Fitzpatrick said.

Bella started taking pictures as a hobby while attending the University of IllinoisChicago. Then, after working as a beat officer in Little Village, Pilsen and Lawndale, Bella was assigned to forensics, where he would pick up a camera again, documenting everything from graffiti to murders for the Police Department.

“When I got to forensics, the photo instructor was a professional photographer who didn’t just teach how to shoot for forensics, he taught me everything about photography,” Bella said during an interview at a restaurant near his home in Lincoln Square.

After retiring, Bella kept taking pictures, but instead of gruesome crime scenes, he focused more on the people and places of Chicago neighborhoods and was usually welcomed with open arms.

A Good Humor ice cream truck in a Chicago neighborhood.

A photo from Peter Bella’s show “Chicago in Black and White” at The Dime.

Courtesy of Peter Bella

“People are nice, they chat with you, ask you to take your picture. I’ll stop in some of the businesses and talk to people. It’s nice,” he said.

Bella was born in Wicker Park and raised mainly in the West Elsdon neighborhood near Midway Airport. It would be easy for some to think there wasn’t much about Chicago for Bella to learn by the time he retired as a Chicago cop, but he said roaming neighborhoods on foot opened his eyes to many things.

Among his discoveries was the grave of Charles Dickens’ brother Augustus in Graceland Cemetery; Al Capone’s home in Park Manor; and a cut-rate casket company in Englewood, all of which he took pictures of.

For the upcoming show, Bella said he selected 300 images from a batch of 3,000 and then narrowed it to 19 with Fitzpatrick for inclusion in the show.

Fitzpatrick said although the exhibit will show pictures taken from all around the city — including one of recently deceased Joseph Kromelis, better known as Chicago’s “Walking Man” that Fitzpatrick described as “one of the most moving portraits of Kromelis that I’ve ever seen” — several that were selected were taken near Lincoln Square.

“The ones I found most moving are right around Giddings Square,” Fitzpatrick said. “I thought the thing we should establish for his first show is that he’s a street photographer that loves the neighborhood from which he lives. I thought it was the perfect milieu for him to introduce himself as an artist.”

For Bella, his formal introduction to the public as an artist begins Friday.

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