The Stories Pictures Tell

A book of old newspaper photos is a trip through history, and some stops are odder than others. Newspaper writers often construct stories in ways a little too contrived to be artful. So do photographers. Some moments they capture, others they concoct. Yet decades later the guile can be the most interesting part of a photo.

After 33 years in prison for his part in the “crime of the century,” the murder of a 14-year-old boy, Nathan Leopold was paroled from Stateville in 1958. After a couple of days in Chicago he flew to Puerto Rico, where he lived the rest of his life. One of the pictures in the new book Real Chicago: Photographs From the Files of the Chicago Sun-Times shows Leopold at O’Hare waiting for his plane.

Leopold is sitting with two acquaintances in a sterile airport lounge under a poster of a windswept blond in sunglasses. To the far right is attorney Elmer Gertz. Leopold was lucky when it came to lawyers. In the 20s Clarence Darrow had kept him from hanging. Gertz got him out of prison. Between Gertz and Leopold sits one of Gertz’s good friends, bibliophile Ralph Newman.

The viewer sees at once the psychological gulf between Gertz and Newman on the right and Leopold on the left. Gertz is smiling at a story the jovial Newman seems to be telling him. These are two men of the world at ease, savoring a job well done. Leopold, his face half hidden beneath his fedora, stares into space, his isolation testimony to those decades behind bars. But what gives the picture its power is the hint that it was always so for Leopold, that as an adolescent he needed to think himself a superman because he couldn’t function as a normal social human being.

When Leopold left prison his memoir, Life Plus 99 Years, came out. Leopold is holding the book upright in his lap; it sits against his coat, face out, the title easily read. Everything about that book cries “prop.” It’s easy to imagine that five seconds earlier the photographer stepped forward and said, “Hold this right there, Mr. Leopold,” and the killer of Bobby Franks thought, “Sure. What the hell.”

Was the book placed? “Well, I don’t know–I’m just not sure,” says Richard Cahan. A former Sun-Times picture editor who left to run the City in the Year 2000 project, Cahan pulled together the Real Chicago photographs with Michael Williams and Neal Samors.

If the book was a calculation does that spoil the picture or enhance it? “Sometimes the hokey pictures tell more about the time than the nonposed pictures,” says Cahan. “When you look at old magazines the ads say more than the copy.”

There’s a photo in the book of Lou Brock posting a good-bye note on his locker after the Cubs traded him to the Cardinals in 1964. This was obviously posed. Brock’s in a suit and tie, his stuffed duffel bag sitting on the floor at his feet, his glove lying across it. Holding the note up against the locker where he means to tape it, he twists toward the camera and smiles. Was the note even Brock’s idea? Who knows? The picture’s as unnatural as medieval religious art–and as full of symbolic information.

“I don’t think the Sun-Times really knew what they had in their archives,” says Williams. “The work was so strong and, interestingly, so much of the work we chose had never been published in the newspaper. There were two levels in the archives–the ones that made the paper and made news of the day, and the other kind that was never published and documented social history.”

The Brock picture didn’t make the paper. Neither did the two pictures taken in 1955 of Mamie Bradley, the mother of Emmett Till. “When his body was brought back from Mississippi his mother and a photographer were waiting there,” says Williams. “It arrived in a simple wooden crate stuffed with straw.” Bradley demanded that the crate be opened. She saw her son’s battered corpse and collapsed next to a baggage cart in the old Illinois Central Station. That’s the first picture. “She decided right there she wanted an open-casket funeral so the world could see what they’d done,” says Williams. The second picture is of Bradley looking sadly at her son’s body at the funeral, his pulped face hidden by the casket lid.

“Neither one ran in the paper,” says Williams. “Maybe they were too strong.”

My favorite photo in the book was taken two years later. It’s a shot of Carl Sandburg gazing fiercely up at rooftops. The Real Chicago caption says, “Carl Sandburg strolls along Wacker Drive in search of material for a new poem about Chicago.” The city must’ve been abuzz. The Sun-Times headline in 1957 announced, “Sandburg Comes Home to Write Another Poem,” though a close reading of the story revealed he’d been brought to town by U.S. Steel in connection with a PR campaign to promote steel curtain wall, the new way of building skyscrapers.

Tribune, Explain Yourself

Two days after last week’s election the Tribune published an editorial that asked, “What does a Democrat believe?” That question invites another: What does the Tribune believe? Does it still believe that the Republican Party it helped found in the 1850s and has supported in national elections ever since deserves its unwavering loyalty? Apparently it does, and the Tribune should tell us why.

When Clayton Kirkpatrick, the Tribune’s editor during the 70s, died last June the editorial page praised him for bringing the Tribune “into the modern era of journalism. In doing so, he ultimately led the revitalization of the Tribune, transforming it from what one historian described as ‘reflexively, predictably, dully partisan Republican.'” But the editorial page wasn’t transformed. Kirkpatrick told readers in a January 1, 1969, editorial that readers could “expect to see some changes. . . . No political party should take The Tribune for granted,” yet Republican candidates for president have every reason to take it for granted. Today’s Republican Party is profoundly different from the party of Abraham Lincoln’s day or of Colonel McCormick’s day, but the Tribune’s fidelity is unchanged.

Elections are decided on the basis of which candidate makes the most voters feel the most virtuous. Even when the choice for president is between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, by election day they’ve been so dressed up in warring symbolism that each vote becomes a personal statement about the voter. The editorial “What does a Democrat believe?” observed that “most Americans know what it means to be a Republican: strong on defense, opposed to higher taxes.” But if we’re to believe the postmortems, most Americans know that to be a Republican today means much more than that.

The days that immediately follow a presidential election produce the most soulful journalism of the year. It’s the period when writers guided by their hearts as much as their heads gaze at the returns and extract fundamental truths about the American people. The popular shorthand–especially cherished by this year’s losers–has it that we’ve become a blue nation and a red nation. “We don’t just disagree on what America should be doing,” Thomas Friedman wrote November 4 on the New York Times’s op-ed page, which was pretty much given over to this perception. “We disagree on what America is. . . . This was not an election. This was station identification.” Friedman then declared: “My problem with the Christian fundamentalists supporting Mr. Bush is not their spiritual energy or the fact that I am of a different faith. It is the way in which he and they have used that religious energy to promote divisions and intolerance at home and abroad.”

On the same page Maureen Dowd wrote, “W. doesn’t see division as a danger. He sees it as a wingman. The president got re-elected by dividing the country along fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance and religious rule.”

Dowd and Friedman shared the op-ed page with a guest writer, Garry Wills. To judge by the number of times Wills’s essay, “The Day the Enlightenment Went Out,” arrived in my e-mail, it spread like scripture among mourning Democrats. Wills wrote, “Mr. Rove understands what surveys have shown, that many more Americans believe in the Virgin Birth than in Darwin’s theory of evolution….Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation? America, the first real democracy in history, was a product of Enlightenment values–critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences. . . . The secular states of modern Europe do not understand the fundamentalism of the American electorate. It is not what they had experienced from this country in the past. In fact, we now resemble those nations less than we do our putative enemies.”

This idea of the electorate is embraced by legions of grieving Democrats, and many of those in Chicago are fed up with the Tribune for enabling it. One approving reader of Wills’s op-ed piece was Ed Quattrocchi, a retired commodities trader living in Evanston. He wrote Wills to tell him he was grateful for the evidence “that the whole country has not been duped by the irrationality gripping the White House and emanating out to the tentacles in the Red States.” And he wrote various Tribune writers to announce he was canceling his subscription. “We can no longer read the editorial page with a good conscience,” Quattrocchi explained. “The Tribune’s assessment of George Bush as the victor in the debates with John Kerry and its sophistical argument in endorsing Bush for election is an insult to our intelligence.” The letter continued with a sarcastic 12-point list of things that “most of our friends know Republican[s] believe.” It began: “Jesus loves you, and shares your hatred of homosexuals and Hillary Clinton.”

Quattrocchi’s list was rejected by Tribune public editor Don Wycliff. “I can understand being disappointed in the outcome of the election–I’m not exactly ecstatic about it myself–” Wycliff wrote back, “but there are limits beyond which no decent person ought to go. I fear you’ve gone way beyond them.” But Tribune writer Jon Anderson responded, “I think you’re absolutely right.” Anderson added, “I think the reason for the deep anger against the Tribune is the feeling, by readers, that the fix was in. They had expected a reasoned decision on endorsement based on what had been reported in the news columns. Instead, they got an endorsement backed by exactly the same arguments that had been thoroughly debunked.”

The Tribune’s problem is that it’s a red paper in a blue state. More accurately, it’s a blue paper in a blue state with an editorial page that grinds out endorsements of red candidates. At the moment Democratic readers feel particularly prickly about this, but Republicans who question their party’s positions on stem-cell research, gay rights, abortion, preventive wars, and the national debt might be getting a little uneasy themselves. Skeptical readers assume the Tribune puts up with the party’s red-state politics because the Tribune Company wants and needs things–such as an indulgent Federal Communications Commission–that a Republican Washington is more likely to give it. But many important Tribune Company papers didn’t endorse Bush. The other possibility is that the Tribune has thought long and hard about today’s Republican Party and concluded that, contrary evidence notwithstanding, it remains the party of fiscal discipline, limited government, and a strong defense. The 1,500 or so subscriptions canceled in response to the Bush endorsement could be a warning that a dwindling number of readers recognize the Republican Party by that description.

Any paper with 700,000 readers and slipping circulation wants to hang on to every single one. The Tribune owes readers who disagree with its editorial policy an explanation. It needs to tell us why an urban, secular, internationalist, intellectually curious paper such as itself remains in thrall to the Republican Party, so much so that among Tribune employees there’s no surer bet than that in four years the paper will endorse the Republican candidate for president–whichever man, woman, or farm animal that candidate turns out to be.

I’m not asking for a packet of thumb-sucking essays in the Perspective section one Sunday wondering “Whither the GOP?” I mean an editorial, written in the same institutional voice that announces the endorsements, that forthrightly answers the question “Why are we a Republican paper?” A coherent answer might get readers like Quattrocchi off the Tribune’s back. If the Tribune can’t write a coherent answer, it should become the paper Clayton Kirkpatrick said it was.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/William Pauer, Duane Hall, Dave Mann, John H. White.