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Chicago’s South Side

The everyday lives of the African-American community in Chicago’s South Side captured by Wayne Miller in a historic photoessay

Wayne Miller

Wayne Miller A woman outside her shack on a cold winter day. It was built of cardboard and plywood on Lake Michigan's beach. Chicago, USA. 1948. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos

“I felt that ignorance had made wars, and if I could use photography to help dispel ignorance, the future might be a little brighter,” wrote Magnum photographer Wayne Miller. On returning from serving as a Navy combat photographer in World War II, Miller embarked on a three year project documenting the South Side of Chicago.

With funding from two consecutive Guggenheim grants, between 1946 and 1948, he set out to capture the a community of thousands of African Americans who had been drawn to jobs in the city during the Great Migration. Chicago’s South Side provides both a historical record of Chicago at the height of its industrial growth and a studied insight into the everyday lives of a society struggling to survive.

 

Wayne Miller Watching a high school football game. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1946. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos
Wayne Miller Merchants on South Halsted Street. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1946. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos

"I felt that ignorance had made wars, and if I could use photography to help dispel ignorance, the future might be a little brighter"

- Wayne Miller
Wayne Miller A girl reading Ebony magazine. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1947. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos

The majority of African-Americans migrating to the city settled in what became an overcrowded ghetto known as the ‘Black Belt’. Extending thirty-blocks, between 31st and 55th streets, on the South Side of Chicago, this became a lively community; yet one that was strictly segregated from surrounding white neighborhoods.

Born and raised in Chicago, Miller himself had never been to the district and it was this realization that drew him to the area. “I thought that if I could make photographs there, I might be able to get some insight into it … not as some sort of crusade on my part, but as a way of sharing how they thought, how they lived, how they felt, their viewpoint on the world around them.”

Wayne Miller Simple was a character that Langston Hughes used in his news column. Upon seeing the man in this photograph, Hughes said: "That's him." Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1947. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos
Wayne Miller Eddie Nichols Gymnasium at 50th and State was a popular gym for young boxers. Joe Louis worked out there. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1946. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos
Wayne Miller American singer Ella Fitzgerald performing. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1948. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos
Wayne Miller The painter Eldzier Cortor in his basement-apartment. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1947. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos

"I thought that if I could make photographs there, I might be able to get some insight into it … not as some sort of crusade on my part, but as a way of sharing how they thought, how they lived, how they felt, their viewpoint on the world around them"

- Wayne Miller
Wayne Miller Workers shovel scrap metal at the International Harvester tractor works, making a chalk mark for each box emptied. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1947. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos
Wayne Miller Repairing the furnace chimney. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1947. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos

From a repair man climbing down into the depths of a furnace chimney, to workers, covered in soot, shoveling scrap metal at the International Harvester tractor works, Miller takes us to the heart of the booming stockyards, steel mills and factories that had drawn these men and women from the rural South.

Wayne Miller Mourners at funeral. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1947. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos

The majority of the photographs focus on the quotidian life of the community, from funerals and weddings, to the interiors and exteriors of homes and businesses: the photoessay communicates the vibrant culture of the area, with its bustling Jazz bars and restaurants. The poverty that plagued many of its residents is, however, tangible throughout: one photograph shows men huddled in a pool hall to keep warm, while in another a young family sits in an overcrowded bed-sit.

Wayne Miller A One-room kitchenette. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1947. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos
Wayne Miller Four men outside a beauty shop. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1948. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos
Wayne Miller Keeping warm in a pool hall. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1948. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos

Chicago’s South Side was not conceived as a photoessay in the traditional sense of the term: it has no clear narrative, nor a definite beginning or end. Miller shot what interested him, motivated by a desire “to know the people that I saw and to try to express how they were feeling about their daily lives and their families.” He applied a similar approach to the individual photographs themselves: less about composition and style, these images are more about a sense of empathy with their subjects. Indeed, Miller was first and foremost a humanist photographer, driven by a personal ethos of photographing mankind in order to “explain man to man”. Chicago’s South Side is a testament to this approach, capturing the essence of a community at an important historical moment.

Wayne Miller Mother and son. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1947. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos
Wayne Miller A makeshift pushcart. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1947. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos
Wayne Miller A spiritualist. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1946. © Wayne Miller | Magnum Photos

This story was also published in the book Magnum Stories, published by PhaidonA very limited number of copies of Magnum Stories are available from the Magnum Shop, signed by Magnum photographers.