Christmas Images from Chicago’s Uptown

Santa Clause is Coming to TownI plan to scan a series of images that I took in Uptown on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1974 and 1975. I’ll post them on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day this year. So be sure to check back. Christmas is not only a time of joy, but a time to count our blessings. During the four years I photographed in Uptown, I was repeatedly moved by the sight of people who had so little who give giving what little they had to help neighbors, friends and even strangers. In many ways, the Uptown of the 1970s could be a cruel place. But it could also be a place of incredible kindness. God bless you all. And thank you for your support! I hope you enjoy the images, many of which have not been posted before.

Reconnecting the Past with the Present

I spent most of the past week in Chicago launching the new book “Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s.” The week was both exhausting and exhilarating. WTTW did a nice segment on their Chicago Tonight show. So did WGN on their noon show. However, the most exhilarating moment came on Thursday in Uptown at the Chicago Public Library on Buena. It was an event sponsored by the Chicago Public Library and the Chicago Book Expo where I officially unveiled the book to the public for the first time. Close to a hundred people attended.

I talked about how and why I started photographing in Uptown, the tools and techniques I used, and the people I met. About a dozen of the people who attended were people that I had photographed back in the 1970s.  They treated the group to stories of what it was like to live, work, and run businesses in Uptown.

It felt like a family or class reunion. I spent hours reconnecting with people I had met 40 years ago. One of the highlights of the evening was the appearance of the (now) 89-year-old woman who owned the Guatemala Cafe on Wilson for 36 years – an amazing record for ANY small business. Everyone had stories to share about the neighborhood – from her granddaughter to the kids eating popsicles, a Chicago fireman who worked at Engine 83 for decades, a rock fan who practically grew up at the Aragon and more.

Dozens of others who live in Uptown today also came to share their stories, ask questions and visit, including people who are investing in Uptown real estate and businesses such as Baker and Nosh.

Thank you all for coming, sharing your stories and helping provide details for the book! I hope you all enjoy it.

My only regret about the week is that I didn’t get to photograph in Uptown as I had hoped. Things were too rushed and the weather wasn’t cooperating. When I did have time, a cold rain forced most people off the streets. But I did get to drive around the neighborhood for several hours.

I was shocked by how much Uptown today has improved compared to what it was in the mid-1970s. The burned out buildings, bars, pawnshops and resale shops that defined Uptown in the mid-1970s are virtually gone. So are the litter, graffiti, abandoned cars, and run down houses. In their place are nice new buildings and trees – lots of trees. The businesses I visited seemed to be busy and prosperous. I sensed optimism and hope in the people I talked to. Property values seemed to be improving.

That’s a tribute to all those who never gave up on Uptown and saw something worth saving. It took a lot of hard work, vision, faith, creativity and dedication to make those improvements.

Uptown had a glorious past. Whether up or down, it has always been one of Chicago’s most unique and storied neighborhoods.

Images from Appalachia

During the middle part of the 1970s, when I was photographing in Uptown, I met hundreds of people from Appalachia who had come to Chicago to find a better living.

Home Sweet Home

Seeing the way many lived in Uptown made me wonder about where they came from.

So one summer, I packed my cameras and took a road trip through Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. I shot about 500 images on 2 1/4 x 2 1/4, 8 x 10 and 4 x 5 film. They show what many Uptown residents left behind. I’ll begin scanning and posting those shots soon.

They clearly show why some people would transplant themselves. I found many people still living in dirt-floor log cabins without running water or electricity, still cooking on wood-burning stoves. It’s a peak into a way of life that has totally disappeared. So check back soon.

Rolleiflex SL66

camera2I used the Rolleiflex SL66 to to shoot approximately 50 rolls of 120 film on the streets of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood in the mid-1970s. The camera is a descendant of the Rollei twin lens camera introduced in 1929. Twins lens cameras like the Rollei dominated the market for photography outside the studio into the 1960s. The cameras had two lenses: a viewing lens and a “taking” lens. Because of this, they also had a parallax problem, especially for close up work.

To understand the parallax problem, hold a finger in front of your nose. Then look at it through your left eye. Now look at it through your right. Notice how you see different parts of the finger and how the background changes. This is the problem that twin lens cameras had. When focusing on a flower through the viewing lens, it might be out of the field of view of the taking lens.

Single Lens Reflex cameras (SLRs) like this one were invented to eliminate this problem. SLRs have mirrors built in. In this camera, you looked down through the viewfinder mounted on top of the camera. The image you saw was reflected onto a ground glass by a mirror behind the lens. The mirror flipped up when you pressed the shutter to expose the film.

The lens was bellows mounted and could be revered for extreme closeups. This was a unique feature that made the camera very popular for close-up work. The entire bellows assembly also tilted to increase depth of field slightly for close up work. However, when extending the bellows, one had to compensate the exposure, usually by increasing the shutter speed because the depth of field was so narrow.

The camera did not have automatic exposure, nor did it have a meter built in. Therefore, the photographer had to use a hand-held meter and guess at the exposure compensation for bellows extension.

The camera was made from 1966 until 1982 and competed with the Hasselblad. It had five interchangeable Zeiss lenses: 40, 50, 80, 150 and 250mm focal lengths. The lenses were razor sharp and still compete with today’s lenses.

The Rolleiflex SL66 also had interchangeable film backs that accepted 120 or 220 film. 120 film took 12 2.25×2.25 inch exposures per roll and 220 took 24. The negative is about 4x larger than 35mm. That meant enlargements contained much more detail and looked much less grainy.

The bulk and weight of the camera made it difficult to carry for long periods on the streets of Uptown. The lens on this camera all by itself weighed more than the Nikon 35mm F2 camera with two lenses that I also used to shoot the Uptown series.

35mm cameras were just becoming a viable professional format in the early 1970s. Most professionals disliked the smaller film size but liked the portability, wide lens selection and especially the built in exposure meters of the 35mm cameras.

Professionals still use cameras like the Rolleiflex SL66 today. They offer an acceptable balance between portability and image size – especially if you have an assistant to carry the gear for you.

Image taken with Rollieflex SL66

Image taken with Rollieflex SL66

Deardorff – Handmade in Chicago

4x5 Deardorff Made in ChicagoI used this camera to take several of the images in the Uptown portfolio as well as many landscapes.  It’s a 4×5 Deardorff, handmade in Chicago by the craftsmen at L.F. Deardorff and Sons.

Laben Fisher Deardorff founded the company in 1916, and was joined by the first of his three sons, Merle Deardorff the following year.  By the time the first Deardorff cameras were produced in 1923, Laben’s twin sons James Russell and John Milton had also joined the company.  “LF Deardorff & Sons, Inc.” made ten cameras during their first production year.  The cameras are made from mahogany and are still sold today. Though the company has moved to Tennessee, its headquarters and factory were on Chicago’s near west side when I bought this in 1976.

It was difficult to use in the field. Because of it’s size and weight, the camera required a tripod. Setting the thing up took several minutes. You had to unfold the camera, insert a lens, focus on the ground glass underneath a black cloth using a special magnified, close the shutter in the lens, cock the shutter, insert a film holder, pull out the dark slide, release the shutter, insert the dark slide, flip the film holder, and repeat the entire process for the next shot.  As a consequence, I didn’t use it much in the field, especially when photographing people. They just got too impatient.

However, the camera yielded a 4×5 inch negative, which produced glorious enlargements with rich detail and texture that 35mm cameras could never match.  That’s why it was favored by advertising photographers.  It was also favored by architectural photographers because of the swings and tilts. These allowed you to correct perspective in architectural photos.

For instance, when you point a 35mm camera up at a building, you get converging parallel lines at the top. By keeping the camera back parallel to the front of the building, you could keep parallel lines parallel with the Deardorff.  You shot up, not by tilting the camera, but by raising the lens on the front standard.

All in all, it was an amazing and versatile tool. I seldom use it today, but almost forty years later, it still produces great shots!

L.F. Deardorff and Sons stopped producing cameras in Chicago in 1988.

Collaborative History

Uptown16From 1973 to 1977, I photographed the people of a neighborhood in Chicago called Uptown. The project was a self-assignment but many of the photos I took there were later published by the Chicago Tribune. Then the images laid in a drawer for almost 40 years.

I recently rediscovered them and posted them here on my photo blog. The response has been overwhelming. has received 1.5 million hits in the last month. I say that, not to brag, but to introduce the subject of this post, collaborative history.

Many of the people in the images have written to tell me more about their circumstances and growing up in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods during the 1970s. I’ve heard from policemen, firemen, teachers, social workers, residents, widows, gang members, writers, historians, shopkeepers and more.

Dozens of people have sent me valuable information that is helping to deepen my understanding of the neighborhood as well as the social and economic forces in play at the time. To put this into perspective, the year I started photographing there, the big news stories were “OPEC Oil Embargo” and “Watergate Tapes.” The embargo quadrupled gasoline prices in a year, threw the country into recession, and caused inflation to skyrocket. The tapes brought down the Nixon presidency within two years.

Lesser stories, including the struggle of working class families to make ends meet among these circumstances, got lost in the fog of time. Now, with the help of the Internet and readers, I am piecing their stories back together again. I hope to have a book ready by the end of the year.

When published, it will be more than a portfolio of my early documentary photographs. It will be a collaborative history of one of Chicago’s most fascinating neighborhoods, made possible through the spread of social media on the Internet. As readers see themselves in photos, they spread the word to their friends who are in other photos. Then they write me with the stories behind the photos.

While the stories I’m discovering do not all have happy endings, they do have important lessons. I learned last week of the fate of a gorgeous young woman. I wrote about her, “If she hadn’t been in Uptown, she could have been in Vogue.” She died young of HIV.

I also photographed a family with three kids. Two of them were in gangs. They always had cigarettes danging from their lips because it made them look tough. According to the widow of one, both moved to Alabama to escape the gang culture in Uptown, but then died from esophageal cancer in their mid-forties.

Yesterday, I was contacted by a Chicago firefighter after I posted a picture of his station house. He informed me that his engine company was the busiest in America during the decade of the 1970s and early 1980s. This helped put the slumlord protests that I photographed into perspective.

I’m finding many life lessons in the emails I get. I doubt the inventors of the Internet had collaborative history in mind when they designed the medium. But the social networks that the Internet spawned have created a tool to do just that.

If you have additional information about Uptown Photos…

If you have information about any of the people or places in my Uptown photos, please email me (see contact page) or post a comment below. Your help will broaden the understanding of this neighborhood’s history.

Several readers have written me with details about photos. I want to thank you all. I am updating the captions as time permits and appreciate your help.

Importance of Taking Notes when Photographing

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that my Uptown photos have enjoyed renewed interest. As a result, I have started scanning more of the negatives from the film that I shot in the 1970s. When I was shooting back then, I carried a little note book with me. After each sequence of shots, I would write notes about the scene, the people, the location, and what I talked about with the subjects.

As I have been posting more images, I have consulted these notes. While taking and transcribing them seemed laborious 40 years ago, they are yielding a wealth of historical information. This information would have been lost otherwise in the fog of memory and time.

This was never proven more to me than yesterday. I came across an image of a black man wearing a white suite, white shirt, white shoes and white hat on one of my contact sheets. He was standing outside an Uptown bar. I wondered what it was that would make a man dress in such an unusual fashion. When I read my notes, the log states, “Professional boxer who fought under the name Spider Webb.” Assuming he not just someone pretending to be Spider, he dressed flamboyantly as part of his professional identity, as many entertainers do. Spider Webb retired from the ring in 1960 with a 34-6-0 record. And Spider Webb did reside in Chicago.

The lesson in this for young photographers: document what you do.

I should note that while I have no reason to doubt this man, many of the people in Uptown did give me aliases for one reason or another, such as one amputee who told me that he was Duke Ellington.


Back Braces for Photography

Back braces, while technically not photographic equipment, are as essential to street, bird and wildlife photography as shoes and a camera. The weight of lenses, tripods, gimbal heads, teleconverters and cameras can add up quickly. Now consider that you may have to hike miles with all this equipment to get to your location. It can be hard on an old back. And it can turn young backs into old backs quickly – faster than jumping up and down on a concrete basketball court.

Years ago, my chiropractor sold me a simple, effective, super comfortable back brace which I wear during photo expeditions. It’s a giant elastic affair that wraps around the waist and fastens with velcro. Two “wings”, one on each side, let you tighten the brace for additional support. They also fasten with velcro. It’s a little more complicated than putting on a jacket, but not much.

The back brace is a bit like wearing a corset and during hot weather can get a little sweaty, but it’s a lifesaver on long treks into the woods. With it, I can hold a D4 fitted with a long lens out in front of me without stressing my lower back. And I feel great when I return to my vehicle and take it off.

I usually wear the back brace over a T-shirt and under a long-sleeve outer shirt that protects me from mosquitoes. A good back brace costs a pittance compared to the cost of photographic equipment.

I bought my back brace directly from my chiropractor, but I have seen them in medical supply and drug stores. You can also buy them online. They are pretty easy to find. Just google “back braces” and hundreds of models will pop up. Most are in the $20-$30 range. A few are more expensive and a few less. Women will even find models designed just for them. The one I have has lasted 25 years and will probably last the rest of my life.

The bottom line is this. If you’re in pain, you’re not going to want to go out shooting. If you don’t go out shooting, you’re never going to get the shot. And all that expensive gear you bought will gather dust and make you feel guilty.

In my humble opinion, tound for pound, a good back brace is one of the best investments you can make in your photography.

Uptown Chicago: Mid-1970s

Hydrocephalic man in front of Uptown halfway houseA lady named Joanne Asala edits a website called It contains a history of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. She discovered my Uptown photos yesterday and asked if she could post a few on her website. I gladly agreed. There must be a great deal of interest in them. She posted the shots around 10pm last night and by 4am this morning, I already had more than 800 new visitors to my site! I have approximately 4000 images that I took in Chicago Uptown in the mid-1970’s. See the story about how and why I shot them in the About section, then review some of the photos. I’ll be posting more in the coming days and weeks as time permits.

Digitizing the Past

Most of the photos were originally shot on film with a Nikon F2, though some were taken with a Rollei SL66 medium format camera. Digitizing all of them may take a while because I have a business to run. But I’ll try to post at least a dozen new ones each week. Please check back from time to time to see updates.

Portrait of a Neighborhood

Most of these Chicago Uptown images are NOT landmarks. I tried to capture a sense of the place through the people that comprised it. Be forewarned: Uptown in that era was a pretty rough neighborhood, so some of these images may be hard to look at. However, it was also a place of love and compassion. People thrown together by poverty somehow struggled through it and managed to survive … with the help of each other.