“I’ve done it all by being honorable …” Jim Burger

When Baltimore photographer, bon vivant and mentsch Jim Burger waded into the mess left behind in 2015 when Freddie Gray died in police custody, he didn’t bring his camera.

He brought a broom.

“The option was to bitch with everyone else, or go and do something,” said the 58-year-old Beth Am congregant known to all simply as Burger. “This city has been pretty good to me.”

It most surely has, and Burger has given much love and labor in return. “I think that if I had an honest-to-God enemy,” he said, “they would have acted on it by now.”

The son of a Uniontown, Pa., saloon owner named Lenny and his wife, Lisa, Burger’s drawing skills gained him entry in 1978 to the Maryland Institute College of Art. There, a teacher named Richard Kristel encouraged him to pick up a camera and Burger found a mentor, a calling and a sweetheart for his viewfinder, the city of Baltimore.

From early October through Thanksgiving weekend, a retrospective of Burger’s four-decade career – “A Charmed Life” — was on display at the Creative Alliance. At the reception, more than 500 people (there was free beer) crowded the former Patterson Theater in Highlandtown to look at some 130 photos and celebrate the guy who took them.

The crush of admirers – a mix of firefighters and artists, bartenders, mothers of friends and childhood neighbors, a throng through which the star could barely move – was just a fraction of the people Burger has befriended and shared a drink with since arriving here in a red Fiat Spider the day after he graduated high school. He never left.

“I was standing on the steps with my brother [A.J.] who I hadn’t seen in nine years, just looking over the crowd,” said Burger. “I couldn’t believe it.”

On the walls were row upon row of dead-ends that make up Baltimore’s “Memory Lane”: neighborhoods wiped from the map (Wagner’s Point); defunct newspapers (the Evening Sun); the brick-and-concrete coliseum where Brooksie scooped up anything hit his way (Memorial Stadium); and sub shops (Harry Little on 25th street) that haven’t put hots on a cheesesteak in a quarter of a century.

“People forget things to death in this town,” Burger said on one of our walks with a notebook and camera. “And when those things finally fall over, they say, ‘Gee, whatever happened to that place?’”

One wall of photos documented the step-by-step process by which an idea became an article in The Sun when the daily miracle still took place on Calvert Street. A few feet away were portraits of waitresses — true Hons, not the clown-faced, once-a-year pretend kind – who worked The Bridge restaurant next to the paper. The diner is now a parking lot.

The quick who appear side-by-side with the dead in the exhibit included a young, nude cellist standing not so shyly behind her instrument; firefighter Jimmie Hayes, part of Burger’s senior MICA thesis documenting Engine 1, Truck 11; and a man who seems to have been born smoking a stogie — veteran Baltimore scribe Neil A. Grauer.

Neil A. Grauer

In this Jim Burger portrait, local scribe and historian Neil A. Grauer sits beneath a portrait of his hero, H.L. Mencken, the “Sage of Baltimore.” (Photo by Jim Burger)

Grauer – whose great-great-great-grandfather, Henry Kayton, was a founder of Har Sinai Congregation — is shown from above in a home office crowded with boxes, papers and files, an old TV encased in wood, an even older radio and typewriters. Bow-tied, he sits smoking a cigar beneath a portrait of his hero, H.L. Mencken, also smoking a cigar.

“Neil wanted to be a cartoonist like I did,” said Burger, who enjoys the occasional martini with Grauer. “He’s an encyclopedia of Baltimore, but what’s he known for? Drawing the cartoon mascot of the Hopkins Blue Jays.”

One often hears that the people burnish a city in their own image. When you stand before the work of Jim Burger, the aphorism reverses itself. The “Jewel of the Patapsco,” which Burger adopted and loves like a birth mother, creates people who resemble, for better and for worse, their birthplace.

“I’ll never exhaust this place,” he said. “There’s always more.”

Rafael Alvarez can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com.