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Magnum Photographers
From the Archive
May 22, 2013
by Wayne Miller
Wayne Miller's photographs chronicle a black Chicago of fifty years ago: the South Side community that burgeoned as thousands of African Americans, almost exclusively from the South, settled in the city during the Great Migration of the World War II years. The black-and-white images provide a visual history of Chicago at the height of its industrial order when the stockyards, steel mills, and factories were booming, but more importantly, they capture the intimate moments in the daily lives of ordinary people. Taken over a course of three years beginning in 1946, his photographs span city scenes from storefront church services to slaughterhouse workers in the taverns at night to a couple making love. In addition to affording a glimpse into the hopes and hardships shared by a community of migrants, the images collected in Chicago's South Side reflect the enormous variety of human experiences and emotions that occurred at a unique time and place in the American landscape. A few celebrities appear in these images - Paul Robeson, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington. But mostly we see ordinary people - in clubs and at church, sporting events, parades. Miller was adept at becoming invisible, and his photographs are full of naked, disarming emotion. One senses the intimacy between his subjects and the emotions that animate their lives. Gordon Parks's memoir of poverty and hope in the freezing tenements of the South Side supplements the photographs, while Robert Stepso's essay contextualizes the South Side in the history of postwar Chicago.