By Leah Bobal
Richard Stromberg stomps up the south stairs of the Jane Addams Center Hull House in Lakeview. Thirty years ago, he took these steps two at a time. Now he labors, pausing to cough and catch his breath, his shoes grazing each step. He takes a drag from a cigarette, stamps it out, and enters the cramped second-floor classroom.
The students hit him with so many questions he can’t make out one from another. He rubs his scraggly beard as if for help in divining the answers. Eyes hidden behind yellow-tinted glasses, he spies a student scurrying in late and decides to make her think she’s missed something important: “And if you remember that, you’ll make a lot of money in photography.” He chuckles as she jumps into her seat.
Stromberg was only 21 when he started this program in 1969. He’d just returned to Chicago after four months in Berkeley. “It was that whole ‘Go west young man’ thing. When I got to California, I found out everyone’s a photographer–just ask them.” He got a call from George Costas, who’d once hired him to shoot photos for a Democratic committeeman. Costas was running a drug program at the Jane Addams Center Hull House on Broadway just north of Belmont, and he envisioned some sort of art therapy with photography as one of the arts. He didn’t have any money.
Stromberg was the right guy to make something out of nothing. He knew how to go his own way. “I didn’t much care for school,” he remembers. “I was always getting into fights in grammar school. I was one of those obnoxious kids making fart noises in the back of the classroom. Mrs. Levy, my fourth-grade teacher, always called me a non compos mentis congenital idiot. I believed her. The only problem was, I knew what she meant. A non compos mentis congenital idiot would not know what she meant.”
At 16 he moved out of his family’s Ravenswood home and got a job at a photostat company. Someone there found him night work at a photo studio. His assignment was to help hold up a 40-foot by 20-foot black backdrop as photographers shot department store display windows. He made a buck an hour plus dinner. “I was working downtown, where no one was yelling at each other and everyone was dressed nice,” he says, “so I was kind of like, ‘Wow!’ It was much different from my house.”
He enrolled at Columbia College to study film and photography. “I went to Columbia to get out of the draft,” he says. “My father was in the Philippines, so probably the only advice he ever gave me that was worth anything was ‘Get out of it if you can. It’s pretty bad.’ Then I got a high lottery number and it didn’t matter.” He quit school after a year.
After Costas called, Stromberg spent his nights behind the wheel of a Yellow Cab and his days at the Jane Addams Center. To raise seed money for the photography program, he put on a film festival. Photographers James Hunt and Darryl Muhrer wandered in to see it and and volunteered to help.
They put an ad in the papers: Jane Addams Hull House is looking for used photo equipment to be used in a program for kids who use drugs. There were hundreds of calls. “Everyone on the North Shore seemed to want to get rid of their photography equipment,” Stromberg says. “Usually, right in someone’s garage was all this stuff they hadn’t used for ten years or better and they were just more than happy to give it to me. The only problem was that most of it wasn’t any good.”
Stromberg, Hunt, and Muhrer were putting up a darkroom with borrowed tools when Costas decided to move the drug program out of the Jane Addams Center. “By the time we were ready to have our first class, there were no kids,” says Stromberg. “We had to look at ourselves and ask, ‘What does a photography program do at Hull House?’ We realized that this really didn’t fall into the definition of social service–feeding the hungry, clothing the poor.”
Yet Stromberg wanted social service to be a part of it. Muhrer recalls, “I came from a college-educated background,” while Stromberg “was kind of a street kid. He was also very bright in a lot of ways people aren’t–visually, mechanically. Both of us had a philosophy that our interest in media and photography could improve the world, help the poor.” Stromberg has always seen himself as a rabble-rouser. During his stint as a cabdriver, he allied himself with the “action team,” a slate of black cabbies who were trying to overthrow the predominantly white union leadership. As a photographer, Stromberg was on Chicago’s racial battle lines, photographing civil rights marches in Cicero and Marquette Park. “I was in that never-never land between the crowd throwing the bricks and the marchers. It was scary….The thing I remember most is how stupid it was–they were angry that these people wanted to walk through the neighborhood.”
In reaction, Stromberg created an introductory assignment that would teach his students something about themselves and each other. One student would shoot a roll of pictures of another student, and each would separately decide which picture best captured the subject. The photographer would also choose the photo that he or she believed most widely missed the mark. Then the class would discuss the choices. Stromberg still gives the assignment.
Student Amro Khorshid’s photo of classmate Mark Donaghey is making the rounds of a recent class. Khorshid expounds on the picture, which shows Donaghey reading a newspaper and drinking a beer. “He’s intellectual and pretty comfortable in his own setting,” Khorshid says. “He’s very much aware of what’s going on. You don’t see that when you first look at him. He looks like he could be a beer-drinkin’ dude who goes to the bars, hangs out with his buddies, and that’s it.” True enough, Donaghey could be dubbed a working-class stiff, and in a way he is–he’s a sheet metal worker. He also reads any nonfiction he can get his hands on. Khorshid’s a software consultant from Egypt. “An interesting face or character interests me more than, say, buildings or trees,” he says.
The assignment helps everyone in the class see who’s really there. Stromberg says, “We talk about the psychological relationship between the photographer and the subject. It’s pure social work. You’re using photography to help people get to know each other, get to know themselves, to understand how they fit in the world.”
Muhrer, a semiprofessional photo-grapher, shaped the program’s curriculum while working on his master’s degree in education. Then he left to finish his graduate work, and he’s now a performance artist. Stromberg and James Hunt, who was an artist and photojournalist, continued as a team until 1979, when Hunt moved to Minnesota. Hunt was killed in a car crash in 1985. Stromberg keeps his name in his Palm Pilot. “Jim once said to me, ‘Using the darkroom facility in exchange for volunteer work has been the best deal of my life.’ The program would not exist without him and, at this point, thousands of people like him.”
Thanks to volunteers, Stromberg has kept the program alive another 20 years. “You teach someone and then they pass that information on to someone. That process validates what they know.” He jokes about the “Mark Twain Memorial Photography program”–as in “you give me your rat on a stick and I’ll let you paint my fence. You give me something, I’ll let you work.” Ann Herbert completed her first photography course in 1977, then quit the program to practice law and travel. She came back 20 years later to study with Stromberg again. “I thought that he was just exciting. I so looked forward to the classes,” says Herbert, who’s been a volunteer darkroom instructor for over a year. “He teaches until everyone gets it. He is always encouraging.”
The Hull House Association, which governs 25 centers across the city, has not always been Stromberg’s biggest supporter. In the 70s, Broadway divided the affluent east from the working-class and poor west. But the dividing line moved west and all of Lakeview became middle-class. In 1982 a new director was hired. “She decided the neighborhood was too middle-class for a settlement house. She wanted to close it down and move the center,” Stromberg says, grimacing. “We were always trying to get the wealthier part of the community to relate with volunteering or donations to the disadvantaged. She tried to disassociate herself from the neighborhood as fast as she could. There was no working with her.” Until that director resigned six years later, “photo was a persona non grata,” Stromberg says. “She cut my salary in half, but she didn’t cut the program because we didn’t eat up any of her budget. But they gave us no help nor support of any kind.”
Last December Hull House honored Stromberg’s 30 years by giving him a letter of appreciation and a coffee-maker–which he’d let it be known was sorely needed. During the ceremony, former Jane Addams Center director Alina Cramer recalled that her first reaction to Stromberg had been that he was “self-important” and that he proved to be “a pain in the ass. He was the bane of my existence….But he was always right. I grew to really depend on his counsel.”
Stromberg was moved to tears by the number of people who showed up for his party to thank him, but he’s typically ungrateful to Hull House itself. “For the 30 years that I’ve worked for them, they would hire freelance photographers for hundreds and hundreds of dollars. They never asked me to shoot anything,” Stromberg grunts. “I’ve been there 30 years and they couldn’t do anything more than give me a letter and a coffeemaker? I wonder how long I have to be here to get the toaster oven!”
Stromberg’s hardheadedness still gets him into trouble. Not ten minutes into an introductory class, he’s laying into a student who didn’t bring her roll of botched negatives. “Are you qualified to know what happened?” he shouts across the room. “You must bring it in so I can tell you what happened! I’m gonna be able to tell you for sure.” The other students hastily surrender their negatives. Holding a set up to the fluorescent light, Stromberg squints and tells one student hers are underdeveloped. “Well, you see, I think that might have been just me being an idiot,” she comments. “Well, there seems to be a lot of that going on,” he says.
But he lends his cameras to students who don’t have their own. “He’ll bend over backward to help anyone,” says student Karen Michaels. “In the beginning, when I questioned how to use some photo equipment I just bought, he’d say, ‘Let’s meet for coffee. I’ll help you.’ He’s definitely a giver.”
In 1995 the roles were reversed. Stromberg was diagnosed with cancer and his thyroid was removed. His body bloated and carpal tunnel syndrome crippled his hands. Stromberg went in for another surgery. He sat alone in an examination room. A nurse came in. “Please remove your shorts,” she said. “But I’m here for the hands!” Stromberg replied. The nurse smiled politely and again ordered him to take off his shorts.
“This just happened a month after the guy in Florida went in to have his right leg amputated and they amputated the wrong leg,” Stromberg says, laughing. “It became this running gag that day. I would say, ‘Excuse me, I’m here for the hands.'” The surgery left Stromberg in incredible pain. Nevertheless, 12 hours later he was teaching class. Two darkroom instructors took his place at the chalkboard, scribbling down f-stops and shutter speeds for him. He couldn’t write for nine months, nor feel the controls of his camera.
This past year Stromberg turned a meeting room into the James M. Hunt Gallery. Ten hours a day, five days a week, he and student Elizabeth Rublev worked side by side, unloading two-by-fours, putting up drywall, painting. Rublev, who was also doing property management part-time, didn’t know what she was getting into. “I remember one night in class, Richard put down some masking tape on the floor and explained how he was going to rebuild the wall,” she says, laughing. “Everyone was nodding and smiling, and I remember thinking, ‘This man needs help!'”
Some students asked how she could tolerate him. “He doesn’t like to be told that he’s wrong,” Rublev allows. “I just tell them when he pushes, you should push back.” Stromberg was so impressed by her dedication that he asked her to become director of the new gallery. “I gave her the same deal I got 30 years ago–we have no money to pay you, but we want a gallery,” he says. The spirit of his program has never changed. “I have malpractice attorneys, architects, and other professionals teaching Basic Photo 1 Darkroom not for the money but because they love it. We work very hard at creating a culture that doesn’t permit arrogance, elitism, or snobbery. It’s a community program that survives on volunteerism.” The program also depends on tuition–which ranges from $225 to $275 for an eight-week class. Hull House pays Stromberg $24,000 a year to work 35 hours a week, and he typically puts in 50 to 70. “I just do what’s necessary,” he says.
Six weeks every year he escapes. He hops into his 1989 Ford Aerostar and drives to places like Alaska and Labrador. At home he also shoots freelance assignments. “I’ve had one day where I’ve photographed in steel plants in the morning, at noon welfare recipients in public housing, in the afternoon the president of ComEd–then at seven walked into the classroom,” he says. “That’s a pretty incredible range of experiences for a day, and that’s not an exception. From steel mills to the CHA to the top of the First National Bank and then to be in the classroom, that’s pretty complete. You know, most people go to work in an office.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.