Bradley Criss on March 3, 2012 at the end of the St. Charles Car Line at Carrollton and Claiborne Avenues in New Orleans. (Jeff Wien Photo, Wien-Criss Archive)
As many of you may know, I was part of the creative team that produced CERA Bulletin 146*, along with Jeff Wien and Bradley Criss. For that book, I wrote a tribute to Jeff, who is 14 years older than I am and has long been a friend and a mentor to me in the railfan field.
Now, just one year after the book’s publication, I find myself unexpectedly penning a tribute to Bradley. Late last night I received the following note from Jeff:
It is with a sense of deep regret that I inform you of the death of BRADLEY CRISS on June 29, 2016 at 2:00am. Bradley died peacefully in hospice care at Advocate Illinois Masonic Hospital where he had been hospitalized for a month’s time fighting off infections and other problems.
Bradley was a highly talented young man who will be missed by all of us.
Bradley’s passing was a great shock to everyone who knew him. He was just 53 years old, and as he was the junior member of the B-146 troika, I had just naturally assumed that he would outlive the both of us.
That is just too young an age for someone as smart, funny, opinionated, and talented as Bradley to die. Let me tell you the story of how the book came about, and how crucial a part Bradley played in its creation.
B-146 was, somewhat improbably, the first CERA publication entirely devoted to Chicago streetcars since a roster had been put out in 1941. There were a variety of reasons why this was so, including the publication of Alan R. Lind‘s excellent book Chicago Surface Lines: An Illustrated History in 1974, the controversial demise of Windy City trolleys, and the immensity of the subject.
During my first term on the CERA board in the early 1990s, I suggested something like this, but the time was not yet ripe and nothing came of it.
About 10 years ago, Jeff and Bradley produced the Chicago Streetcar Memories DVD. Jeff provided the content, and Bradley did a terrific and very professional job putting it together. He had fantastic skills in video production, as anyone who has seen the North Shore Line program that Jeff and Bradley did a few years ago will attest.** The videos they made together are definitely the best of their type. If you have not seen them, they are highly recommended and should not be missed.
In particular, their North Shore Line video brings that storied interurban to life in a way that I would not have thought possible.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Jeff and Bradley had originally planned a CERA book to accompany the Chicago Streetcar Memories DVD. Some work was done then, including parts of the text that would later appear in B-146, but somehow it went onto the back burner in favor of other projects.
During my second stint at CERA a few years ago, I brought up the subject of a Chicago book again, and learned not only that there were tremendous resources available, but that a “head start” had already been made by Bradley and Jeff. The time was right this time, and the project received an enthusiastic green light.
Jeff had the knowledge and had collected a lot of information over the years. I rode a Chicago streetcar once in 1958 as a three-year-old, but Jeff was already a very active fan by that time, documenting the waning days of the PCCs with his hand-held 8mm movie camera.
Over the years, his own photographic collection, together with additional material such as the late Bill Hoffman’s movies, became what is now the Wien-Criss archive. This served, along with the PCC photos that were generously shared by Art Peterson from the Krambles-Peterson archive, as the cornerstone for our book.
Jeff knew his subject inside and out, and had lots of material, and it was my job to help him organize it and flesh it out with additional images. I was sort of a “hunter-gatherer” of Chicago PCC material, a habit that has continued to this day here on the Trolley Dodger blog.
Improvements in technology over the years made a book like this possible. There is no way it could have been made in the 1970s, 80s, or 90s. And in that regard, Bradley Criss was our computer technology “maven.”
Bradley’s role was much more than just being Photo Editor. The entire design and layout of the book was his work, and I believe it is one of the most attractive railfan books ever published.
It certainly has the best color photo reproduction of any such book I have seen. And again, this was Bradley’s work. He not only had to painstakingly match the colors of the various cars with the other photos, but had to remove thousands and thousands of blemishes from these photographs via Photoshop. Bradley wrote something at the end of the book about this, but in my humble opinion he greatly minimized the actual difficulty.
The ultimate goal, of course, was to make things look as they originally did in real life, to make up for 60 years of fading and hard knocks that our original source materials had in some cases suffered.
In this, Bradley had the highest possible standards for the work. He would not let it be published until it was absolutely perfect.
If you could see the “before” vs. the “after” of some of these pictures, you wouldn’t believe it. Of course, when you see the book now, you don’t see all the hard work that went into it. You can appreciate it as the seamless whole that it is.
It did not do him any favors when we decided that there was so much great material, that we ought to make it a double length book. This took an already impossible task, and multiplied it times two. As a Chicago PCC book, it really is the “Big Enchilada.”
Eventually, under the crushing weight of such a project, he had to ask for additional help with the daunting task of “spot removal.” Some of the images we used had as many as a thousand such imperfections that had to be fixed one at a time in Photoshop, looking at a very small part of each scene under 200% magnification or more.
Along with Jeff, John Nicholson, and Diana Koester, I did some of this work myself. After spending eight hours a day on spot removal, I could barely see straight. But to take nothing away from the contributions made by other people, Bradley did most of it himself.
There were many things that could have gone wrong and derailed this book. The combination of very high standards and the sheer number of images that were used, created a daunting task, and it was only by pulling together as a team and persevering that we scaled this Mt. Everest of a book and planted our flag on the summit. All this work took longer than anyone could have anticipated at the outset.
Bradley not only had to make the pictures look good; he had to make the entire book look good, and it had to “flow” for the reader, and he had to squeeze a tremendous amount of material into a limited number of pages. But when you read the book, to quote The Wizard of Oz, you “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
Even if I had written a tribute such as this to him for the book, there is no way he would have wanted it printed. He was, to use a restaurant analogy, a “back of the house” sort of guy, who jealously guarded his privacy. His work was integral to making the book a reality, and helped shape it in many ways, but he was not the type of person who would stand at the front of the line and accept praise from the people who have the book and appreciate it. It wasn’t easy for me to even persuade him to sign someone’s copy.
However, in the one year since the book came out, it has been warmly and enthusiastically received. It has also sold a lot of copies, and I am sure that it will eventually sell out and join the long list of other collectible CERA publications. If you do not yet have a copy yourself, I urge you to consider it while new copies are still to be had. There will come a time when the situation will be different.
When we were working on the book, I thought of it as Jeff’s legacy to the world, which of course it is. I had no way of knowing then that it would also become, all too soon, an important part of Bradley’s legacy as well.
This is to take nothing away from the many people who contributed to the book in one way or another. I thank all of them, and am also very grateful to CERA for publishing it.
But on this day, as we mourn the passing of Bradley Criss, I am especially appreciative of what he accomplished, in spite of health issues that he had even at that time. Who knows what he could have achieved in the future.
Bradley was someone who did not suffer fools gladly. But I am glad that I could call him a friend, fortunate to have known him, and even more fortunate to have worked with him on the definitive Chicago PCC book, which may very well gain in stature as the years go by.
I will miss him greatly, miss hearing him laugh, and miss his jokes. I regret that we will never be able to share another deep dish pizza at Gulliver’s on the north side of Chicago, as it was his favorite. Now that he is gone, there is a gap in our lives that cannot be filled. I loved him like a brother.
So I thank him for everything he did, and I apologize to him for making him, for this one moment, a “front of the house” guy. I am happy that at least he lived to see the fruits of his labor.
My deepest condolences go out to his family and friends, and everyone who knew him.
You can read CERA’s tribute here.
Here is Bradley’s Chicago Tribune obituary.
Bradley’s obituary from the Illinois Valley News Tribune is here.
*Full title: Chicago Streetcar Pictorial: The PCC Car Era, 1936-1958, available from CERA and their dealers. Trolley Dodger Press is not affiliated with Central Electric Railfans’ Association.
**The North Shore Line video is not commercially available at present, but is occasionally shown at January CERA meetings. Chicago Streetcar Memories is included with B-146 and can also be purchased separately here from Chicago Transport Memories (again, not affiliated with us).
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