10 December 2009

Light ~ On the South Side ~ Michael Abramson

All three photographs from Light: On the South Side
© Michael Abramson.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1980s my friends and I occasionally would venture out of Hyde Park to some of the local clubs - mostly Theresa's and the Checkerboard Lounge. There was, frankly, not much happening in Hyde Park due to the fact that the University had long connived with the City to clear the area not only of public housing but of establishments that might attract the wrong sort of clientele.* The clubs we sometimes went to - "frequented" would be an overstatement - were a dying breed as well. As I recall Theresa's closed before I left Hyde Park. But they had music, sometimes live, sometimes on the jukebox - blues, funk, R&B. And they had a welcoming clientele, people willing to overlook not only the obvious fact that we were as the saying goes 'not from around here' but that the reverse was not true where we were from.

All that prompts my special interest in the recently released Light: On the South Side which documents nightlife in some similar South Side clubs in the mid-1970s. The project, produced by the Numero group, includes a portfolio of a hundred or so photographs by Michael Abramson and two LPs (!) of tunes by the sort of small label, local musicians that you might here in the clubs. Interestingly Abramson focused primarily on the people who hung out at the clubs - the images I've lifted above are samples.

It turns out that the photo blog folks over at The New York Times have posted about the release as well. Toward the end they note: "Because the South Side pictures represent a white photographer documenting a black scene, they are not without critics." True enough, I'm sure. But it seems to me that such criticism is misplaced precisely because Abramson appears to have embraced something like the view that Roy Decarava articulated about his efforts to navigate the shoals of race and racism in some of his own images. Speaking of the well documented historical practices that used race to demean and humiliate said:"I made a choice not to get caught in the meanness; I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the possibilities." Abramson was invited in, welcomed and treated the people in his images with respect; in the process he offers insight into spaces that are now long gone.
* On this sordid history see: Arnold Hirsch. Making the Second Ghetto: Race & Housing in Chicago 1940-1960. University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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