Harmonic Portico (2008) Credit: Cecil McDonald Jr.

If you’re headed to the fourth floor of the Cultural Center for a look at the work of Charles Harrison and the rest of the “African American Designers in Chicago” exhibit (it closes March 3), here’s a suggestion: leave enough time for a stop on the second floor to see “Cecil McDonald, Jr.: In the Company of Black.” This photography exhibit takes Harrison’s aesthetic of everyday beauty to another level. Actually, leave a chunk of time—these images are likely to grab and hold you.

McDonald bought his first camera from a pawn shop on State Street when he was 25, learned how to master it at the Chicago Park District under the tutelage of Eric Werner, and went on to earn an MFA at Columbia College, where he now teaches. He told me that this body of work (about 60 large prints are on display) grew out of his dissatisfaction with the pictures we usually see of black life, images that present only the two extremes of misery and exceptionalism. In this series of photographs, many published in a 2017 book of the same title, paired with poems by Avery R. Young, McDonald set out to capture the beauty in the ordinary lives most people lead.

<i>The Beginning of a Beautiful Me</i> (2006)
The Beginning of a Beautiful Me (2006)Credit: Cecil McDonald Jr.

Over a decade, from about 2006 to 2016, McDonald photographed his family, neighbors, friends, and himself in carefully planned, strategically lit scenes. This is not documentary photography, though the images look spontaneous. Luminous and suffused with color, they’re ordinary situations imbued with extraordinary emotional content, much of it stemming from a pointed awareness of the viewer’s perspective. A sailor returns home to a Chicago bungalow; we glimpse him through the window of an empty and intensely blue room. A woman approaches, striding through a white hallway toward the (ominously?) orange space from which we see her; her image, caught in two mirrors, precedes her. A girl ducks her head under the faucet of a sink for a shampoo; her skin, bathed in the same white light that catches individual drops of water, is golden brown; her eyes meet ours, dead on.

<i>Fallout</i> (2006)
Fallout (2006)Credit: Cecil McDonald Jr.

“They’re definitely constructed,” McDonald said of these images. “I find some small gesture that’s recognizable by everyone, that gives you the sense that it just happened. There’s always a little movement, which conveys a candidness.” But there’s no significant postshooting manipulation: “I like to think that the real world is all I need; I love everything to unfold in front of me. Each has its own narrative, but they’re meant to be open and they’re doing everyday things, so anyone can find a way in. At least, that’s my hope.”  v