Never a Lovely So Real: Photography and Film in Chicago, 1950–1980

In his 1951 book Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson Algren offered bittersweet praise for the city: “Once you’ve become a part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” This unique character—fraught with affection, tension, and contradiction—is revealed in the work of the many photographers who documented Chicago in the second half of the 20th century as cultural, social, political, and economic events transformed the city. Photographers and filmmakers, perhaps more so than any other artists, focused on Chicago’s history as a city of neighborhoods, many of them fiercely segregated and separated from one another. Together they constructed a portrait of Chicago that speaks equally to its allure and its haunting brutality.

Drawn largely from the Art Institute’s collection, this exhibition provides a poetic, rather than exhaustive, survey of photographers and filmmakers who worked across the city from the 1950s through the 1970s. These individuals are drawn together by their commentary in images and film on the life of their own communities or communities to which they were granted intimate access as outsiders. Featured among these is a network of photographers who created rich documents of Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods during a period coinciding with the emergence of the city’s Black Arts Movement. These include works by Billy Abernathy, Darryl Cowherd, Bob Crawford, Roy Lewis, and Robert A. Sengstacke produced in connection with the Wall of Respect (1967–71), a revolutionary outdoor mural located in the Bronzeville neighborhood that celebrated Black Liberation Movements. Other projects, such as Mikki Ferrill’s decade-long documentation of an improvised South Side club, The Garage (1970/80), and two of Gordon Parks’s Life magazine assignments, likewise underscore the role played by Chicago’s South Side as a national center of black culture and politics.

These projects are complemented by work created in Chicago’s north and west sides in neighborhoods that were undergoing significant transformations. Danny Lyon’s 1965 series Uptown captured both the struggle and immense pride of residents living in an area where immigrants from central Appalachia had recently settled. In a similar manner, Luis Medina gained the trust of members of several Hispanic street gangs while photographing their territorial graffiti in the turf surrounding Wrigley Field in the late 1970s. This rich history of street photography is shown alongside the work of filmmakers such as Tom Palazzolo and Kartemquin Films, who poetically captured the city’s changing landscape.

Representing incredibly diverse personal and public narratives about Chicago—most created outside of the city’s dominant art communities—these works, seen together, reveal Chicago’s character, lovely and ever so real.