Having written earlier this week about Michael Jordan, I was put in mind of another North Carolinian who adopted Chicago as his new home in the form of the photojournalist John H. White.
White was born the son of a preacher in 1945 in Lexington, NC. As a boy, one of White’s teachers told him that he would grow up to be a garbage man, to which John’s father responded that he should grow up to be his best, to look for the best in other people, and if he ended up working on a garbage truck that would be just fine ‘as long as he was the one driving the truck’. Having encouraged his son to work hard and take pride in his efforts, White’s father was also the source of his first photo assignment. Shortly after buying his first camera at age thirteen with ten Bazooka bubble gum wrappers and fifty cents from his grandmother, White’s dad tasked him with documenting the ruins of their church in the wake of a fire.
As an adult, Mr White, who is today in his late seventies, has gone on to a celebrated career as a photojournalist. Among his many accolades he counts a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography awarded in 1982, making him one of only a few Black photographers to have been recognised for this award. Moreover, the prize was given not for a single photograph or series as it usually is, but for White’s ‘consistently excellent work on a variety of subjects’.
Among the most famous of these subjects — and the one that first introduced me to his work — was his 1973-74 DOCUMERICA photo series. White, at this point still in his twenties, was contracted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as part of a project seeking to create a visual record of the American people and their environment. The programme, which took inspiration from the Farm Security Administration’s Great Depression-era photography, used local photographers from around the country and didn’t provide much in the way of guidelines or restrictions regarding subject matter, with the final project resulting in more than 20 000 images.
White’s contribution comprises a portfolio of extraordinary photographs depicting the many facets of daily life among Chicago’s Black residents at the time — ‘life’, as White put it in the captions to his images, ‘in all its seasons’. True to the spirit of the enterprise, White shows his subjects existing within the larger socio-economic realities in which they find themselves. Hardship, certainly, is one common theme: widespread racial discrimination, challenging working lives, poor living conditions, and more besides.
Reflecting on White’s work for DOCUMERICA and on one of the most famous images in the series in particular, a photo of children playing in front of Cabrini-Green, a notorious housing complex in the Near North Side of Chicago, fellow photographer Clarence Williams says the following:
‘I imagine White must have felt an added responsibility as a black photographer in Cabrini. Not to right a wrong, but to do right by the people he was photographing, as opposed to just making a good picture. In my own life, it’s moments like these when I’ve felt like a black photographer, rather than a photographer who happens to be black. You look at this world with a historical perspective, and try to give a voice to the voiceless. It’s not just an assignment or a job. It’s a sacred responsibility.’
Indeed, there is little question of White having done right by the people he photographed. Partly this is down to his simple, straightforward, and powerful evocation of the plight of many of the city’s Black residents, but also it’s from the joy, liveliness, and beauty he captures within this same community. Not unlike Gordon Parks, a photographer who produced similar work for the FSA and the United States Office of War Information and alongside whom White is often spoken of, he manages at once to capture a sense of struggle and great spirit in a single strip of celluloid.
Part of this vibrant picture of life in Chicago in the mid 1970s — and one most relevant to the ambit of this site — is the clothing worn by the people in White’s photos. Their wardrobes seem to say every bit as much about their lives as do the surroundings contained within White’s frame. Looking through his images — a selection of which is included below — we see suave musicians, sportsmen in uniform, working men in the clothes of their trade, professionals wearing suits, families at church in their Sunday best, dapper men about town, people relaxing in leisurewear, and more. When paying attention to the clothes depicted in White’s DOCUMERICA photos, his love letter to 1970s Black Chicago seems equally to be a time capsule of some of its most stylish residents.
All images are sourced from The U.S. National Archives / No known copyright restrictions.