Black in the '70s: Photographer Charles Caldwell's 'back in the day' images revisited

March 9, 2012

Charles Caldwell doesn't often shoot photos these days.

The Hoffman Estates resident is happily married with grown children, has a full-time job at a cable television company and is active in his church. Indeed, it's been decades since Caldwell routinely carried around a camera. "I guess after raising three kids and 32 years of marriage, I don't have the same passion to get out and shoot as much," Caldwell said earlier this week.

Before the kids, the job and the other adult stuff, Caldwell was a young shutterbug who shot hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of 35mm images between the early and late 1970s, beginning when he was a Harlan High School student.  And though he doesn't shoot much today, Caldwell, now in his mid-50s, held on to virtually all of his negatives. Scores and scores of them. Socked away for 30 years and more. Caldwell has begun pulling them out and taking a look.

The images show African American life as Caldwell, who is black, photographed what was around him. Folks in bell-bottoms. Dudes in big old Donny Hathaway apple hats--like the young gent on the left in the image above. When Caldwell became a student at predominantly-white Iowa State University in 1975, his focus didn't change. He remembers shooting black life on campus, including visits by poet Nikki Giovanni and others. Caldwell is in the early stages scanning negatives and rediscovering his past--and ours.

Skilled unknown amateur photographers who quietly documented 20th century Chicago life--and whose work, a half-century later, is now being unearthed and shared thanks to the internet--have been a subject this blog has visited a few times. People like Charles Cushman, Vivian Maier and 1970s University of Chicago student Lou Fourcher, each walked the streets with a camera, taking poetic, high-quality images for their own entertainment. The work is important now because it adds to the photographic narrative of Chicago and maybe even reshapes it with additional stories, people, perspectives and locations. Caldwell's images are another passage in that reformatting narrative.

LB: When did you first start shooting? And what interested you in photography?

CC: I started shooting in 1972, my sophomore year of high school. My cousin Mike took a photography class at Roosevelt University and showed me how to use a camera. I was not one of the popular kids of the school, but I soon found out that when a shy guy has a camera around his neck and asks a pretty girl "Can I take your picture?" you can get her to pose for you. And it also provided a way to get closer to her and get to know her better.

LB: What kind of images did you like taking--besides those of girls, I mean?

CC: As I think on it now, I always had a love for taking portraits. And cousin Mike taught me how to develop black & white photos and some color processing. We used to spend weekends in his basement processing film in the darkroom we built. Harlan had a darkroom that I was able to access my junior year. My Art teacher noticed I had an eye for shooting and encouraged me by putting me on the year book staff. I just remembered: The Chi-lites came to Harlan and performed before they hit big. I was able to shoot them. I may still have the photos.

LB: Oh man! Keep looking. What camera did you use for the images we see here?

CC: My first camera was a Pentax SLR that I [got] from my cousin. I used it through my high school years.

LB: Then from Harlan you went to Iowa State. You took your camera with you, but you didn't major in photography?

CC: I majored in Pre-Med?!?! But there was a Black Student Council that I took picture for at ISU. I continued to shoot candid shots of interesting people that I ran into. Dick Gregory, Nikki Giovanni [in the photo below], Earth Wind & Fire. They all came to ISU and I was able to have access to them.

LB: Great stuff.

CC: And to my utter shame, I still have not processed the bulk of the black-and-white pictures from the past.

LB: But now, you're taking them out and having a look.

CC: Some of my pics, I have not seen in over 40 years. It will be real interesting to see now how they come out.