This post is one of two that previews my presentation at the 2014 Urban History Association Conference in Philadelphia. The session is titled “Surviving the Seventies: Mulltiracialism, Place, and Activism in Chicago and Detroit” (Session 18, Friday October 10, 10:30 am).  My esteemed fellow panelists are fellow PhD candidates Andrew Baer (Northwestern University) and Kyle Mays (University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign). Dr. Carol McKibben (Stanford) will comment. Read Part One of the preview here.

 

In November 1973 young advertising copywriter Bob Rehak stepped off the El train at the Wilson stop in the heart of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. That Saturday was a characteristically cold and misty Chicago fall morning, adding a layer of atmospheric drama to Rehak’s mission. After months of passing through the economically depressed area on his way to work at Leo Burnett Agency in the Loop, Rehak had finally summoned enough courage to descend from the El platform and onto the street—Nikon F2 camera strapped to his shoulder and blank model release forms in hand. What would become a two year photographic obsession that produced over 5,000 images actually started simply enough, despite Rehak’s apprehensiveness. He approached the first person who caught his eye, a middle-age black man who “seemed a little unstable.” Rehak asked him, simply, “Can I take your picture?” The man immediately dropped a knee to the litter-strewn cracked sidewalk, brought his hands together in prayer, fixed his eyes just past the gaze of Rehak’s Nikon, and proclaimed, “I am Jehovah!” The shutter clicked, Jehovah signed the release form, and later that night Bob Rehak developed his first Uptown photograph in his apartment’s dark room. Only after the print dried did he notice that the man had made an imperfect, if not poetic, expression of prayer—he was missing parts of three fingers on both clasped hands.

"Praying.” The first photograph in Rehak’s Uptown portfolio. ©Robert Rehak.

“Praying.” The first photograph in Rehak’s Uptown portfolio. ©Robert Rehak.

Rehak’s Uptown sojourn began as a personal creative exercise, which he intended to sharpen his writing skills.  The people and places of Uptown, however, would not allow such a simple or self-interested endeavor. Instead, the neighborhood—in all its poverty, violence, diversity, hopelessness and hope, and even pride—essentially collaborated with Rehak , presenting a complicated self to the camera and infusing the images with profound stories of survival. After forty years in storage, the ‘discovery’ of Rehak’s Uptown portfolio created a viral sensation. Now, the work represents perhaps the most searing, comprehensive, and complex portrait of a struggling urban community in the mid-Seventies, defying any classification as simple as ‘gritty realism.’

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