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