Alley Ball, 1995
By Marc PoKempner© for "What Makes Obama Run?"

PoKempner says: "We began at his campaign office on 71st Street, and walked around the neighborhood, collecting signatures for his nominating petition and meeting residents. He had a very easy way of engaging with everybody—kids, seniors, rich and poor, black and white—and I spent an unusual amount of time shooting—four or five days over the course of a couple weeks—for what turned out to be just a three-picture story."

On a Wednesday evening in 2004, the staff of the Reader gathered in a bar near the corner of Clybourn and Fullerton and waited for the paper’s printer down the street to run off the first copies of the next issue. Our mood was as celebratory as apprehension would allow. A new era was at hand. The inky, bulky, black-and-white, and hugely successful Reader we’d published since 1971 was becoming history—done in by a slow diminishment of advertisers and readers. But a design team from Barcelona had created a new Reader that was bright, cheery, and full of color, and this was the night we’d finally get to see it. Maybe it would delight Chicago; maybe it would cure the Reader of all that ailed it.

But the maelstrom sucking at the Reader and every other newspaper in America wasn’t fueled by changing design tastes. No face-lift would make our vast classifieds section a match for Craigslist. What color did to the Reader was make us look more like everyone else. “The black-and-whiteness began as a technological/financial given,” recalls Bob McCamant, the founder who’d created the look of the Reader. “Color was expensive, and didn’t look any good on newsprint. . . . Then, after [color] became more commonplace on newsprint, black-and-whiteness was an identifying mark of the Reader: something that made us distinctive.”

And, McCamant might’ve added, a haven for black-and-white photography.

This week an exhibit called “Chicago Reader in Black & White” opens at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery. It’s something of a requiem. Curator Tyra Robertson says she watched photojournalism vanish before her eyes and in 2013, a few weeks after the Sun-Times eliminated its photo staff, got the idea of mounting a series of exhibits to honor the passing era. The first exhibit celebrated the work of John H. White, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer the Sun-Times had laid off. The second consisted of archival crime photographs from the Tribune. The third show—proposed by Reader photographers orphaned as the paper retrenched—would show what can happen “when photographers are empowered with creative freedom,” Robertson said via e-mail.

“Most people realize film photography and developing in a darkroom took more work; what I don’t think they realize is how high the stakes were for photojournalists shooting film,” Robertson said. “The amount of work it took to develop film and photographs along with short, unforgiving deadlines means you had to be at the absolute top of your game to get the job done.”

But life at the top of your game is exhilarating. Kathy Richland, one of 15 photographers in the exhibit, remembers: “What made shooting for the Reader challenging was newsprint. We all had our special darkroom techniques. Mine: overexposing the negative a stop to include the zones of gray in the shadows, underdeveloping the film in the right combination of solvents to hold the highlights and maintain the shadows. This created a print that actually looked OK on newsprint depending on the heaviness of ink on the press. And that was luck. Reader photographers took great pride in our prints, always shooting ‘full frame’ to show that we composed while shooting, no cropping. For a while in the late 80s, a visual style was to file the opening of the enlarger negative carrier to show the photo with a black outline proving it was ‘full frame,’ i.e., not cropped. Prints were hand delivered at deadline, often still damp.”

Lloyd DeGrane, another photojournalist featured in the show, adds, “I remember driving to the Reader offices with wet prints that I sometimes held out the window of my car to dry while I slowly drove.”

Color changed this. “We were no longer in the darkroom developing and printing our film,” says Richland. “We used one-hour labs and either scanned the film or sent in four-by-six-inch prints. Digital cameras made the process easier by uploading photo files directly to a website, eliminating the need to hand deliver prints.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with color photography, but anyone who would look at a print in this show and wish it were in color is the sort of person who thinks Hemingway should have used more adjectives. “Essays shot or presented in black and white focus the reader’s attention on the individual meaning of the images and the significance of their relation to each other, and it’s often harder to maintain that focus with color,” says Marc PoKempner, who began shooting for the Reader in the 1974. “I often convert images to black and white when the color’s distracting. For me it also signifies the ‘unvarnished truth,’ honesty and humility.”

DeGrane shoots digital when he’s on a job, but his personal documentary work is done with black-and-white film he orders from New York and a two-and-a-quarter-inch Bronica camera that he makes sound like a hair shirt he’s pleased to be afflicted by. “I love the feeling of the camera,” he says. “It’s big and bulky, but most of all I love that the camera is not easy to use. It makes me work and problem solve and use a light meter, and it makes me feel like a real photographer, a master of the device that will tell my story but you never know until you get the developed film back.”

He goes on, “We’re all bombarded with thousands of color digital images every day,” DeGrane says. “I think most people stop, for just a moment, and ponder a black-and-white image. Black and white doesn’t give you everything all at once, you’ve got to think about it. Black and white is another reality.”

I called “Chicago Reader in Black & White” a requiem. But for what, exactly? For the old Reader, certainly. For black-and-white photography, in the view of Jon Randolph. But Paul Natkin would say for the whole of photojournalism. Natkin points out that earlier this year Sports Illustrated, whose photography was its taproot, laid off all its staff photographers. “Absolutely nobody wants to pay for pictures any more,” Natkin mourns. “The idea of doing a photo story—God forbid somebody would give you more than an inch and a half square. I haven’t seen a picture story in years.

“I can’t tell you how many times somebody from a major American newspaper calls me up and says, ‘Hey, we want to use your picture of—fill in the blank—in our Sunday arts section. I always say one thing. First, ‘How much you want to pay for it?’ Answer one is ‘We don’t pay for pictures.’ Answer two is ‘We don’t pay for pictures but we’ll give you a photo credit.’ My answer one is ‘Do you get paid?’ Answer two is ‘If you send me a paper with a photo credit can I take it over to the store and buy groceries?’

“I still get a fairly good check every month from Getty Images for pictures I’ve shot over the last 30 years, and that’s pretty much it. I barely manage to make my mortgage payment every month, and I haven’t picked up a camera in two and a half months.”  v

1,000 Words, 1988
By Jim Newberry
Poet and music fan Thax Douglas, cover story, 1999
By Jim Newberry
International Mr. Leather at Congress Hotel, 1997
By Cynthia Howe for “Male Bonding”
Ma and Pa shooting range copy
By Eric Futran

Futran says: “Guns have always driven me nuts. I sold McCamant on the idea of letting me ‘shoot’ an essay at a shooting range/gun shop in Bensenville. These nice people posed for me.”

Uptown Kids
By Eric Futran

Futran says: “This street portrait was shot in Uptown for a project of mine in David Avison’s view camera class at Columbia. I spent a lot of time schlepping a four-by-five around Uptown. Sometimes you just get lucky.”

Tom Waits
By Eric Futran

Futran says: “I heard Tom Waits on a radio concert some time in the late 70s, and my mind was blown. When I found out he was performing in Chicago I asked for an assignment to shoot his picture. When I arrived at the Quiet Night an hour before the show, I found some guy in a Tom Joad hat with his head down on the bar, cigarette in hand, nursing a beer. It was Waits.”

Boxer’s Introduction—Sima Patel, Sarah Lahalih, Meghan Jada, Mary Ann Zoellner of the Tough Enough boxing club at the finals in Rosemont, 1994
By Jon Randolph
Dance party at Mr. G’s nightclub, 2002
By Jon Randolph
Middle-aged twins at home in Chicago
By Lloyd DeGrane
Liz Phair in her Wicker Park apartment, 1993
By Lloyd DeGrane for “Greetings From Guyville: Liz Phair’s Girl-o-centric Exile”

DeGrane says: “Her clothes were still wet. She had just come back from the laundromat, climbed up on her coffee table, and I took the photo. This was the first public photo of Liz. A month later everyone knew her name.”

By Lloyd Degrane

Degrane says: “Brother Bill in a stairway at the Henry Horner Housing projects on the west side of Chicago. Brother Bill walked between warring gang members while they were shooting at one another. There were no lights on the stairwells—we walked in the dark, we climbed to the fifth floor. Finally one light dangled from above, I asked Brother Bill to stop. He did. I took the photo. Out of nowhere several gang members showed up and demanded to know what I was doing on their floor, then they saw Bill and it was all smiles and friendly acknowledgements. Bill turned to me and said ‘Believe in Jesus.’ I said, ‘I believe in you Brother Bill.’

Rene Randall, Organic Farmer, June 2, 2003. In These Parts Feature story on Rene and her Sweet Earth Organic Farm, Wauzeka, Wisconsin
By Paul Meredith
Eight Months in the Death of Robert Thomas, 1991 from Faces of Aids: Life and Death at Bonaventure House, published March 27, 1992
By Paul Meredith

Meredith says: “When I first met Robert in August of 1990, he was still relatively healthy and strong. He was 41. He had eight months left.

Robert, who had made a good living selling real estate, was a detail person. He settled his financial affairs, arranged a living will, and purchased a vault for himself at Rosehill Cemetery. He labeled the drawers of his dresser so that when he became too weak to care for himself, the volunteers would know not to put his socks in his underwear drawer. As his condition worsened he seemed to relish smaller and smaller things: a poem read to him by a friend; the smell of the air in spring, his last.

For some residents, Bonaventure House is their only home, and its community their only family. Robert was one of these. His closest living relative, a sister somewhere in the south whom he loved very much, never came to visit him. She has two kids. She was afraid. He never complained. She sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers when he died.”

Ron Darling reached third base and was talking to coach Bobby Valentine in 1978
By Paul Meredith
September 11, 1992 cover story: Shelter – story written by a volunteer at the Franciscan House of Mary and Joseph shelter on West Harrison.
By John Sundlof
June 3, 1994 inside: Rules of the Sovereign – story about a quirky health club in the Sovereign Hotel in Edgewater.
By John Sundlof
Sunset Steam Baths in Rogers Park, 1979
By Kathy Richland
By Mike Tappin
By Mike Tappin
A boy wears a mask from the movie Scream while playing in the ‘American Home Sales’ trailer park shortly after 9/11.
By Yvette Marie Dostatni