Chicago photographer Bob Natkin died in 1996, and for years his pictures sat in boxes in the basement of his West Rogers Park home, where his widow, Judy Lewis Natkin, still lives. Then last year his son Paul, a prominent local music photographer, and the staff of the Stephen Daiter Gallery began sorting through them to put together the first exhibit ever devoted to Natkin’s work, which opens at the gallery this Friday.

“He was definitely proud of that stuff,” says Paul. “But he never thought what he’d done had artistic worth from the standpoint that someone would want to take one of these things and hang it on the wall in their living room. To him it was a job. It was a way to support himself and put food on the table.”

Yet after he became a father Natkin gave up photography for nearly two decades. “He didn’t want to be away from the family all the time,” says Paul. From the mid-50s to the early 70s Natkin worked as a building contractor, and the only pictures Paul remembers him taking during that period were the annual family Christmas photos.

“This man had no business giving up photography,” says Paul Berlanga, director of the Daiter Gallery. “We went into that basement and we saw image after image, year after year of solid, solid work.” Berlanga first become interested in Natkin’s work several years ago, when he saw some of his photos in a magazine retrospective. A mutual friend put him in touch with Paul, who’d wanted to exhibit his father’s work for years.

One reason for Natkin’s unassuming attitude was that he began photographing as a hobby and was mostly self-taught. He was born in Chicago in 1919, grew up in Albany Park, and started taking nature photographs while working as a camp counselor in Wisconsin. He was drafted into the army in 1941 and assigned to the medical corps–he’d been a premed student at the University of Illinois. But an officer saw him using his camera in his spare time and made him an air force photographer. He flew with bomber squadrons, taking pictures so that officers could determine whether targets had been hit. “He was in the last plane in each formation, and by the time his plane flew over whoever was alive on the ground had their guns zeroed in on him,” says Paul. “He was in the bottom of the plane. His plane got shot up a lot.” But he got hit only once–on the 49th of his 50 missions.

A photo that’s not in the exhibit captures the carnage Natkin documented. It shows the smoldering city of Palermo, Italy, after a raid on Mother’s Day in May 1943. The handwritten caption beneath the picture reads, “Lost a couple of planes–killed 36,000 people. A week later Palermo was an open city.”

“There are a good number of photographs from the war–heartbreaking images like that where he took notes,” says Berlanga. He thinks the experience shaped the kind of pictures Natkin took after the war. “He comes back, and he has the greatest humanism.”

When he came home in 1945 Natkin began taking photographs for local publicity agencies. By the early 50s he was working regularly for national publications such as the Saturday Evening Post and the outdoorsmen’s magazine True, and he became one of the first photographers at Ebony.

The Daiter exhibit focuses on images taken from 1948 to 1953. “It was a period of intense early creativity for him,” says Berlanga. Some of the best pictures were taken while he was doing an assignment for the Mexican tourism bureau–men walking a row of pigs down the street, an organgrinder looking furtively over his shoulder, a family waiting impatiently at a bus station. “The sincerity and the intensity of many of the images he took down in Mexico are not the standard issue of what a tourist board would use to get tourists to go south of the border,” says Berlanga. The photos taken in Chicago that make up the rest of the exhibit have the same unadorned naturalism, whether they’re of narcotics court or the 1952 Republican National Convention, of popular entertainers or residents of the city’s slums.

There’s an unguarded intimacy in Natkin’s photos, even when they’re taken from a distance–a Mexican woman stripped to the waist and bathing in a stream, a little boy standing in a squalid slum stairwell, a woman staring out through the bars of a jail cell, a bored conventioneer. “They’ve got soul,” says Paul Natkin. “It’s all about connecting with the subject. He actually stopped and talked to people. He didn’t just run up and take a picture and leave. He cared about building a relationship before he photographed them.”

“The thing that set him apart as a photographer is there is a respect for the subjects,” says Berlanga. “He doesn’t take away their dignity. He keeps a dignified distance from everybody.”

When the building business slowed down in the early 70s Natkin returned to photography. “I became a photographer because he got a gig working for the Chicago Bulls,” says Paul, who was in his early 20s at the time. “He told me how he got in free to every Bulls game and got the best seat in the house. My whole deal was to get in free.” Paul says he once took his father with him to a rock concert at Soldier Field. “I don’t think he ever looked at the stage,” he says. “He just took pictures of the crowd.”

By the end of his life Natkin had returned to taking nature photos near his vacation home in the same Wisconsin town where he’d been a camp counselor, and where he died. Paul hopes some of that work will get its own show someday. “There’s a whole other exhibit in the later stuff,” he says. “There’s at least a couple more.”

Bob Natkin: Photographer

When: Opening reception Fri 11/5, 5-8 PM. Through 12/31: Fri and Sat, 11-6

Where: Stephen Daiter Gallery, 311 W. Superior

Price: Free

Info: 312-787-3350