THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
This summer, beyond two glass doors in the Art Institute of Chicago’s photography galleries, is a rarely seen collection from Chicago’s past. It is the people’s history of this city from 1950 to 1980 as told through photography and film. The backdrop is poverty, segregation, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, gang rivalries and the astounding resilience of Chicago’s communities.
Many of the photographers whose work is displayed were photojournalists for black newspapers and periodicals including the The Chicago Defender, Ebony, The Black Photographers Annual, and Muhammad Speaks.
Their photos are raw. Children peer out from windows that were once grinning. A man is silhouetted against a cracking cement wall, smoking after working in the stockyards. Men practice defense against police dogs. A young girl sits on the curb holding a black power sign. A woman faints beside the pastor during a service at the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church. Activists lie down on State Street in protest. Some activists even protest integration, like the young white men in Gage Park captured by Darryl Cowherd.
Gordon Parks, a black man from Chicago who went on to become Life magazine’s first black staff photographer, is well represented in the exhibit. He had once been allowed into a Chicago church to photograph a service even when his white colleague from Life was turned away for committing a critical faux pas.
Ten years later, he was far removed from that community. Successful and well- traveled, Parks returned to Chicago to shoot a voyeuristic portrait of the Nation of Islam. He reflected on his status as an outsider in an accompanying essay in Life, “I Was a Black Man in White Man’s Clothing.” His photos hum with well-exposed and expertly framed drama, but they lack the vulnerability his less technically impressive contemporaries were able to capture.
One such contemporary, Valeria “Mikki” Ferrill, photographed The Garage, a pop-up music venue. Every Sunday for over ten years, it transformed a garage into a safe haven for black music and culture. In some of those photographs, prints of past photos decorate the walls. People knew her and called her “The Picture Taking Lady”; when she was around, they danced as if no one was snapping photos. The exuberant, blurry images feel authentic in a way no perfect Parks photo could.
The introductory text to the exhibit invokes the bittersweet Nelson Algren quote about Chicago: “Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”
It is a wonderful sentiment, one that many of us may find relevant to our own lives in Chicago, but it doesn’t square with the story the images tell. It is a romantic understanding of a wild city. Turn to the words of black people in Chicago—like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959)—and you will find a much starker reality.
Or hear it straight from the mouths of those who lived it. Perch on a stool in the back of the main exhibit gallery to watch “The Corner,” a 1963 documentary by Robert Ford narrated by young members of the Vice Lord gang. Their stories are laced with grim realities of poverty and race.
When you first enter the gallery, you face Algren’s quote and a wall of portraits of everyday Chicagoans. The collection comes from Black Arts movement photographer, Billy (Fundi) Abernathy, who published a book pairing his photos with the words of poet Amiri Baraka.
Baraka described the photos in the collaboration as “Portraits of life. Of life being lived.” That seems to encapsulate the exhibit far better than Algren’s rosy quote. The exhibit tells about the people and the strength they found while dancing, praying, marching, and persevering. It’s not Chicago that is lovely and real, but the people who struggled and triumphed there.
The exhibit only includes photographs through 1980. Follow the story into the hallway with a first view of Latrice McElroy Holding Her Baby, Cabrini Green, Chicago (1988) by Marc PoKempner and Matt and Joaquin (1995), an example of the unique portrait work of Chicago photographer Dawoud Bey.
Bey’s signature style creates images from mismatched shots. His images are never in quite the same scale or taken from the same angle. The result is a fragmented whole, a reminder that truly seeing someone is never as simple as putting the pieces together.
Evangeline Reid graduated from the University of Chicago, where she studied English literature and art history. A former editor and writer for The Chicago Maroon and Grey City magazine, she has covered art and culture in Chicago since 2013.
“Never a Lovely So Real” runs through the end of October.
Valeria “Mikki” Ferrill. Untitled from The Garage, 1972. The Art Institute of Chicago. National Docent Symposium Endowment.
© Mikki Ferrill.
Bob Crawford. Untitled (Wall of Respect), 1967. The Art Institute of Chicago. Through prior gifts of Emanuel and Edithann M. Gerard and Mrs. James Ward Thorne. © Bob Crawford/ courtesy Romi Crawford.
Billy Abernathy. Mother’s Day from Born Hip, 1962. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of the Illinois Arts Council.
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