Through the lens: Photographer documents life on Illinois River

Through the lens: Photographer documents life on Illinois River

CHAMPAIGN – A man rows on the Illinois River at dawn, bathed in orange light.

Another, adventurer Steven Antonacci, kayaks across jagged ice covering the river, heading to his home near Chillicothe.

In the river near the Marseilles Lock and Dam, a great blue heron stands gracefully on a rock as white water surges around it.

With his Nikon digital SLR camera, David Zalaznik captured these and nearly 90 other scenes of life along the Illinois River, for many of them capitalizing on his habit of rising at 5 a.m. each day.

"At times, no humans were in sight, such as a Christmas morning when a great blue heron stood sentinel in a line of trees enveloped in fog that kept most of the river hidden from sight," Zalaznik wrote for The Peoria Journal Star, where he has been a staff photographer for 19 years.

Eventually his Illinois River photographs were compiled for his first coffee-table book, "Life Along the Illinois River," recently released by the University of Illinois Press. Now touring the state to promote the book, Zalaznik will be at Pages for All Ages bookstore in Savoy next Sunday.

He spent two years shooting life along the Illinois River, over a 270-mile journey from Grundy County, where the Des Plaines and Kankakee rivers join to form the Illinois, to Jersey County, where the Illinois River melds into the Mighty Mississippi.

Zalaznik first began shooting the river in November 2005, after the Peoria Art Guild invited him to be part of an exhibition of photographs on the Illinois by 10 regional photographers, including Larry Kanfer of Champaign.

"The exhibit was in the fall of 2006, and that ended and I kept going," Zalaznik said in a telephone interview. "I was enjoying the project so much that I kept working on it, not knowing where it would go."

Eventually he submitted a book proposal to the UI Press. An editor responded that the Press had been thinking of doing a book on Illinois rivers.

"I told them I had only one and I went over there and they looked at my photographs and said OK," Zalaznik said, adding that he is ecstatic over the final product, designed by Cope Cumpston.

Zalaznik said 90 percent of the photographs taken in the book were spontaneous, meaning he came upon the scenes serendipitously.

Taking them "meant many hours of driving the roads that would keep me near the water's edge," he wrote.

"It meant simply dropping in on people who feel that connection to the river. People like Deanna Taylor, raising the American flag at dawn while filling in as postmaster on a Saturday morning in Bath, or legendary fisherman Orion Briney who with a twist of his wrist sent his plate boat speeding from shore to return at a crawl with the top of his boat inches above the river's surface, loaded with 15,000 pounds of Asian carp."

Zalaznik went out on the river twice with Briney, a commercial fisherman who concentrates on Asian carp, considered not only an invasive but also dangerous species for its penchant to leap or fly out of the river.

"I got hit once in the head and once in the camera," Zalaznik said of his close encounters with the fish. "It knocked my camera out from in front of my face. It was nothing serious."

Zalaznik, 54, who lives in Peoria on a bluff overlooking the Illinois River, estimates that he took 50 to 60 percent of the photographs at sunrise.

"I love that time. It's the light I enjoy," he said. "And there's something about enjoying the same people who are out at the same time of the day – they're usually working and they're serious about it because they're out at that time of day, or they're playing and they're serious about it because they're out at that time of the day."

"If you're not out at that time of day you would simply miss them."

If you go

– What: Photographer David Zalaznik signs copies of his coffee-table photography book, "Life Along the Illinois River," published by the University of Illinois Press ($34.95), featuring 90 photographs, a foreword by Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn and an introduction by Zalaznik.

– When: 2 p.m. Dec. 7.

– Where: Pages for All Ages bookstore, Savoy.

– Also: Gary O'Brien of WDWS Radio 1400 AM will interview Zalaznik at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday during his afternoon entertainment. show, "Gary O'Brien and Friends."

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