Chicago's South Side, 1946-1948

Chicago's South Side, 1946-1948

By Wayne Miller; Gordon Parks; Robert B. Stepto

University of California Press, Hardcover, 9780520223165, 127pp.

Publication Date: September 28, 2000

Wayne Miller's photographs chronicle a black Chicago of fifty years ago: the South Side community that burgeoned as thousands of African Americans, almost exclusively from the South, settled in the city during the Great Migration of the World War II years. The black-and-white images provide a visual history of Chicago at the height of its industrial orderwhen the stockyards, steel mills, and factories were boomingbut, more important, they capture the intimate moments in the daily lives of ordinary people. Miller was adept at becoming invisible, and his photographs are full of naked, disarming emotion.
One of the first Western photographers to document the destruction of Hiroshima and the survivors of the bombing, Wayne Miller had just returned from his stint as a World War II Navy combat photographer under the direction of Edward Steichen when he received two concurrent Guggenheim fellowships to fund his Chicago project. Taken over a course of three years beginning in 1946, his photographs span city scenes from storefront church services to slaughterhouse workers in the taverns at night to a couple making love. In addition to affording a glimpse into the hopes and hardships shared by a community of migrants who had just made the long journey from the rural South to the urban North, the images collected in "Chicago's South Side" reflect the enormous variety of human experiences and emotions that occurred at a unique time and place in the American landscape.
A few celebrities appear in these imagesPaul Robeson, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington. But mostly we see ordinary peoplein clubs and at church, sporting events, parades. Much is on view that is of interest to the student of mid-twentieth-century black Chicago: the neighborhoods Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas traversed in Native Son, the Bronzeville limned in Gwendolyn Brooks's earliest poems, and the street life that inspired the urbanscapes of painter Archibald Motley. The kitchenette apartments that Miller so deftly memorializes are bursting with people of all ages sleeping, dressing, courting, and dreaming. One senses the intimacy between his subjects and the emotions that animate their lives.
Gordon Parks's memoir of poverty and hope in the freezing tenements of the South Side supplements the photographs, while Robert Stepto's essay contextualizes the South Side in the history of postwar Chicago. "Chicago's South Side"is a superb testament to the talent of the photographer, to the spirit of the people the images portray, and to the moment in American history these photographs capture.

About the Author
Wayne F. Miller, a photojournalist, was a member of Edward Steichen's World War II U.S. Navy Combat Photo Unit, associate curator for the famous "The Family of Man exhibit and book at New York's Museum of Modern Art, a contract photographer for "Life magazine, and a member and former president of Magnum Photos. He co-authored "Baby's First Year with Dr. Benjamin Spock, authored "The World Is Young, and currently owns and maintains a redwood forest in Northern California. Orville Schell is Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Gordon Parks is a photographer, filmmaker, author, poet, and composer. Robert B. Stepto is an author and Professor of English and African American Studies at Yale University.

Gordon Parks, born into poverty and segregation on a farm in Kansas in 1912, was the youngest of 15 children. He worked at odd jobs before buying a camera at a pawnshop in 1938 and training himself to become a photographer. Parks was a photographer at the Farm Security Administration and later at the Office of War Information in Washington D.C. from 1941 to 1945. As a freelance photographer, his 1948 photo essay on the life of a Harlem gang leader won him widespread acclaim and a position from 1948 to 1972 as the first black staff photographer and writer for Life Magazine, the largest circulation picture publication of its day. He was also a noted composer and author, and in 1969, became the first African American to write and direct a Hollywood feature film, The Learning Tree, based on his bestselling novel of the same name. This was followed in 1971 by the hugely successful motion picture, Shaft. Parks was the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts in 1988 and over 50 honorary doctorates. Parks died in 2006 at the age of 93.

Robert B. Stepto is Professor of English, African American Studies, and American Studies at Yale University. He is the author of A Home Elsewhere: Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama, Blue as the Lake: A Personal Geography, and From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Among his edited volumes are Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Literature, Art, and Scholarship; Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction; and Harper American Literature.