at Ehlers Caudill Gallery, through January 29

I can think of few better icons of 1950s America than Mickey Pallas’s 1959 photograph Convertible and Suburban Family. A “perfect” family–husband and wife, boy and girl and dog–sit in a convertible parked in front of their suburban home. The camera is perfectly aligned with the car’s rear bumper; the Buick is neatly centered in the frame. The family members are positioned symmetrically in the front and back. The tail fins, jutting diagonally outward in the foreground, mirror the family’s arrangement, as does the house behind, a peaked-roof wing at the left matching a peaked-roof garage at the right. Only the family members’ stares disrupt this well-ordered geometry.

Just as striking is Buick Convertible and Man (1959) (both photos are from Pallas’s series “Buicks and Their Owners”). A young man sits in a convertible in a driveway; spread out behind him is the rectilinear geometry of a treeless subdivision. The car’s shape seems echoed in the streets, walkways and houses that fill the frame.

Though I immediately interpret such pictures as critiques, they were in fact taken as a commercial assignment, intended for use in Buick ads. Their nonjudgmental gaze forces me to realize it is I, with my particular attitude toward modern technology and culture, who sees horror in this configuration of mass-manufactured cars, cookie-cutter houses, and gridlike streets. While at first glance I saw the Buick family as 50s automatons, with no more personality than the tail fins or the home, closer examination of the image shows the humanity of each face.

The guiding principle in Pallas’s best work is an attempt to be true not to some preconceived artistic vision but to the nature of each subject. Thus Convertible and Suburban Family has its formal opposite in Bill Haley and His Comets (1956), where the arrangement of band members sprawled every which way–the saxophonist even lying on his back–bursts with near-chaotic energy. Or there’s Jones’ Foundry Striker Surrounded by “Red Squad” (1946), in which the frame is filled with a forest of cops, the silver badges on their hats standing out against their dark uniforms. In the foreground is the figure of the striker, his arms forcibly held back by two police hands, his stout torso bulging forward. The man’s clenched teeth, expression of resolute rage, and straining body seem to be struggling against not only the stern grip of the police but the well-ordered cluster of caps and badges. Just as Pallas matches cars, homes, and subdivisions to the rectangle in the “Buick” series, so here the frames dominant order is that of the police “mob”; the striker struggles to get out of the image itself. Any competent photographer can show us what his subject looks like; a work whose overall composition expresses a truth about the subject can only come from an artist.

Pallas, though, never considered himself an artist. He was born in 1916, in Belvidere, Illinois. His mother suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalized when he was a baby. His father struggled to raise three sons while earning a living in Chicago. The resulting difficult family situation caused Pallas to check himself into the Marks Nathan Childrens Home, a Jewish orphanage, when he was 13. His interest in photography developed early, when he joined the home’s camera club, splitting the $1.25 price of his first camera with another boy. Graduating from high school during the Depression, he was unable to continue in photography; instead he held a variety of jobs, eventually working in an auto plant and becoming active in the United Auto Workers union. He began photographing union meetings, then weddings, and eventually was able to work full-time as a free-lance photographer.

All the work in this exhibit, and almost all of Pallas’s work of the 1950s, was made on assignment. He worked for oil companies, burlesque houses, black churches, and Ebony, among many other clients. The result, evident even from this small show, is a remarkably inclusive documentation of the 50s–Hula Hoopers, talent shows, the early days of television and rock ‘n’ roll, strip joints, the faces of workers.

In 1959, seeing a need for custom photofinishing in Chicago, Pallas founded Gamma Photo Labs, long Chicago’s premier professional tab. He thus had much less time for his own photography. He sold the business in 1973, and now lives in Palm Springs, where he photographs family and friends.

Until recently Pallas was not recognized as a “serious” photographer. His work was never exhibited in galleries or museums. In 1979 an undergraduate named Janet Ginsburg, looking for a summer job in photography, went to work for Pallas making contact sheets from his vast archive of about 250,000 negatives. She began to feel there might be a show in his work, and seven years later cocurated a retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center. Pallas was also then the subject of a short Reader profile by Toni Schlesinger. Though now represented by several galleries, Pallas has still received scant critical attention.

Yet the work is extraordinary. Though he has been compared to Weegee and Diane Arbus, Pallas’s work does not depend on having “unusual” subjects, and it has none of the condescension that so taints Arbus. The training at Marks Nathan was socially progressive, and that likely combined with the reality of the Depression, Pallas’s union activities, and his own sensitivity to produce a vision that is both inclusive and humble. One of the first white photographers to work for African Americans, he struggled for integration in life and in his photos. His images record without judging, and in so doing set their subjects free.

In Gun Shop Owners (1956), an older couple stands behind the counter, a pistol in front of each, the symmetry echoing Convertible and Suburban Family. Their smiles are untroubled, open, inviting. The guns on the counter allow for an ironic reading of the relation between the shop owners and their weapons, but the image itself dictates no particular point of view. Hula Hoopers (1958) has a similarly open perspective. Seven children and adults are absorbed in this quintessential 50s fad, each swinging the hoop a bit differently–one child twirls hers around her neck. Each person strikes a different pose; indeed, each seems caught at a moment of almost perfect self-expression, reminding me of the street photographs of Helen Levitt.

Four images in this show were taken in burlesque clubs. Pallas’s camera certainly gazes at the strippers’ shapely bodies, but it does more–once again his telling composition expresses the essence of each situation. There is an ineffable sadness to the woman in Antoinette (1955), alone in her dressing room, holding her breasts as if to show them off while at the same time they are partially covered by an absurd ring of tassels. She looks into the camera, unmasking the seductive illusion created by her costume, reminding the viewer of her humanity and her aloneness.

In Burlesque Venus (1956), the left side is filled with the body of the performer, in G-string and pasties, her face only partially visible. The curvaceous near-nude body seems somehow at odds with the frame’s edges and with the audience gathered at tables bles below her; the closeness and sensuousness of her form threaten to burst through the frame’s borders. At the same time, the expressions of the men in the audience prevent the photo from becoming an erotic gaze: most of the men–one wide-eyed and curious, another smiling broadly and knowingly–redirect the viewer to the stripper. But one man covers his face and another, apparently more interested in the camera, stares directly at us.

Pallas, an intuitive talent, was unlikely to have staged this scene, and he does not theorize about his work. But the effect is similar to that of many canonical works of high modernism: the viewer, captivated at first by the alluring image, is thrust back into his own self-consciousness. I find the man’s stare at the camera more “true” than the moments of aesthetic self-referentiality in the work of more controlling artists. Here that moment of reflexivity emerges unmanipulated out of a real event.

My favorite images in the exhibit are five photos of union members from the “Faces of Labor” series. At first glance they may look like simple head shots of ordinary folk set against a blank background. Pallas himself, in the 1986 Reader profile, recalls, “The union magazines used a lot of head shots. One time, a whole day I did nothing but head shots. Boom, boom, boom.”

Yet the expressions of these workers are a far cry from the blank, constricted look of the ID photo. Each face is finely nuanced; the photograph discovers in each a personality as unique as a fingerprint. Though Pallas remembers “Boom, boom, boom,” curator Janet Ginsburg wrote me about the “Faces of Labor” series, “I’ve been photographed by Mickey myself. I know that. he became a friend to each one, maybe flirting with the women, maybe joking with the men. You can see it in their eyes. These people are alive and engaged.”

There is also something odd about these pictures. Like the burlesque shots, they are strangely unbalanced. The figures seem somehow larger, closer, more sensual, more alive, than a photograph has a right to be. Pallas’s images seem to be more human presences than photographs. The balance in his work between the subject and the compositional form that articulates that subject’s nature here collapses into the most self-effacing of visions: the photographer’s work seems to almost melt away before the personhood of his subjects. Pallas told a Chicago Tribune writer in 1992, “You have to have a sense of form to be a photographer. . . . But the most important thing. . . is to have a feeling for other human beings.” Picasso doubtless felt he had a feeling for other human beings, but in his pictures he made them into creatures more reflective of his own imagination. For Pallas the “feeling” consists not of asserting his own identity but of helping others realize theirs. As an artist he seeks not to remake the world but to see it, and to celebrate it, as it is.