Merry Christmas, Uptown, from 40 years ago

Forty years ago, in 1974 a young, aspiring photographer with a scraggly beard got off the El train in Uptown and started taking pictures with his new Nikon F2 on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Forty years later, I’ll be “replaying” some of the memories. Beginning at midnight on the 24th, I plan to post one shot an hour from that era.  The ghosts of Christmas past will last through Christmas day.

I remember those days and the people I met on the street as if they were yesterday. Uptown in that era was a poor neighborhood filled with struggling people who had big hearts.

I remember a recovering alcoholic putting a ten dollar bill (a huge sum in those days equal to a whole day’s pay) into a Salvation Army red kettle. I asked him how he could afford that. He told me that they had saved his live on more than one occasion. He couldn’t afford not to.

I remember a young Gypsy mother holding the hand of her semi-naked infant. She couldn’t afford diapers for him. Nevertheless, she invited me into her home to take pictures.

I remember a young woman who I encountered at Sheridan and Wilson. She had walked miles through the cold to do some last minute shopping for her friends and family on Christmas Eve at the resale shops that lined Wilson and Broadway.

I remember a baker, just before closing that same day. He was feeding pigeons with day old bread and handing out cookies that he hadn’t sold to people walking by. He didn’t want them to go to waste.

I remember an addict trying to stay drug free for a day. With the little money she had, she was looking for gifts for her mother and father on Wilson. It was a peace offering to her family. A desperate cry. Part of that yearning we all feel to love and be loved. She was trying to work her way back into their hearts.

I remember a little girl, playing on her apartment’s stoop in the ice and snow on Christmas day. She had no coat, only a white dress. She was shivering, but her smile warmed all those who passed by.

I remember a demolition crew taking down a store that had brought Christmas cheer to the community for decades. The irony of what they were doing on Christmas eve was not lost on them. They let me warm my freezing hands around a fire they had built in a barrel as they told stories about the glory days of the store.

I remember a Black Panther, a one-legged Jehovah’s Witness and other community activists trying to raise funds for people even poorer than they were.

The people of Uptown in that era may not have had much, but they had each other. I’m an old man now. But the memories of that poor neighborhood are some of the richest of my life.

If you know what happened to any of the people in the pictures, please email me so that I can update the captions.  Merry Christmas to all!


Uptown Portfolio Receives 7 Millionth Hit Today

During the last week in July, 2013, I posted several photos that I took in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood 40 years ago. Through word-of-mouth, email, Facebook and Twitter, news of the portfolio quickly spread. Last night, the series received its 7 millionth hit. To put that in perspective, that’s about twice the population of Chicago. I am both honored and humbled. Many of you, my loyal readers, have also become regular contributors, volunteering thoughts, details, memories and anecdotes that helped bring the story of Uptown in the 1970s to life. Thank you for all of your help. And a special thank you to all of the people who allowed me to photograph them 40 years ago.

About 20 of these photos will be on exhibition at Wilson Abbey in May. I hope you get a chance to see them. The photographic world has long since gone digital. But the graininess of the film that I hand-developed 40 years ago (Kodak Tri-X), gives these images a gritty feeling that perfectly matches Uptown during the 1970s.

Uptown Book Wins Five Awards So Far

As many loyal followers know, I’ve made my living in the advertising/marketing communications business for more than 40 years. I began working at Leo Burnett right out of graduate school at Northwestern – one year before beginning my photo project in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. After Burnett, I worked at three other major agencies in Chicago, Dallas and Houston before starting my own shop twenty years ago this week.

Last August, this blog went viral. This month, it should surpass 7 million hits since then. Back in November, interest in the Uptown photos turned into a book called Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s. Web site analytics show that the Uptown photos clearly drive the most traffic to this site.

I originally posted the images because I thought they might help us win some commercial photography work from companies looking for gritty portraiture. So after the book was published I mailed several copies out to clients and prospects as a self promotion. The mailing brought in several photography jobs and another book publishing job for a major Fortune 500 company.

Somewhere along the way, I entered the book in the Houston Ad Federation’s annual award contest in three categories: agency self-promotion, book design and black and white photography. It won Gold awards in all three categories. By virtue of that, it automatically advanced to the American Advertising Federations regional award ceremony in all three categories. There, it won two more gold awards (I’m still trying to figure out which categories it won.)

This region covers Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana – the entire south/central portion of the United States.

Next, the book advances to the AAF national competition in New York.

It’s hard to talk of the images in the Uptown book and “advertising” in the same sentence. It almost seems disrepectful to the trials and tribulations that some many Uptown residents suffered through in the mid-1970s after the OPEC oil embargo. But at least you know the back story.

These awards are quite an honor in our industry. The American Advertising Federation contest draws more entries each year at its various levels (local, regional, national) than any other awards competition. Typically, the contest draws more than a hundred thousand entries. To win so many awards in so many tough categories against such stiff competition is a tribute to the power of the Uptown images and the fine people who allowed me to create them.

Thank you all for helping a lifelong dream come true. Stay tuned to see how the book does at the national level.

If you haven’t yet purchased the book, we still have about a thousand copies left from the first printing. You can buy an autographed copy through this web site, or plain copies through Amazon or Please tell your friends about it.

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.

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.