“He’s always had a humanitarian side. He loves being loved,” Toussaint Werner said of his father, the photographer Eric Werner. This Sunday at the DuSable Museum of African American History, Werner's work will be featured in a fundraising event entitled Chronciles of Black Chicago: A Lifetime Tribute to the Life and Works of Eric Werner. Latoya James, the Membership Manager and Development Assistant at the museum, said that featuring Werner’s work “was just a natural tie in with what we do here.”
Werner has been a photographer in Chicago since the mid-1970s. Born in Riverside, California, he moved to the South Side when he was three years old. His interest in photography started when he was in his teens, and was spurred by reading The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Langston Hughes. Werner was captivated by the photos taken by Roy DeCarvara: “The images represented the African American people with a level of sensitivity that he had never seen at that time,” said his son.
Werner’s burgeoning passion was put on hold, however, when he went off to serve in the Vietnam War. But Toussaint pointed out that “in Vietnam he realized he could die at any moment, and he didn’t want to spend his life doing what he didn’t want to do." So, upon returning to Chicago, Eric Werner began to work as a public relations photographer.
At the time, there were very few black photographers making a steady living photographing life in Chicago. Back then, Werner was considered “probably the premiere black photographer in the city,” his son recalls. A large portion of his work documented community movements and organizations, such as Operation PUSH (now know as the Rainbow Push Coalition). He also covered Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr.’s campaign for president, and captured images of music greats such jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie and soul legend James Brown. Toussaint noted that his father’s shot of Brown was far more revealing than the typical one seen of Brown’s cape being draped on his back at the end of a show. “It is definitely a documentation of beauty,” he said.
Werner’s work has remained relatively consistent throughout his life; the wealth of his career has been spent doing public relations photography. “He loved being a documentarian, but he had children to feed,” Toussaint said. “He approached most of those PR events as an artist.”
Several years ago, Werner was honored by the HistoryMakers Organization for his body of work. His son spoke of how, when he walked up to get his award, he took his camera and began “to shoot the event as if he was working it, rather than basking in the award.” Werner has remained humble, and though he is living in hospice care at his son’s home, his work in the African-American community still resonates. According to Toussaint, some 700 visitors have come to see him during the month and a half since he has been in hospice. “Everyone from street thugs, to the heads of corporations,” he notes.
“He has been engrained in the movement of the people since I’ve been on this earth," Toussaint remarked. His vast and varied body of work give us a story of Black Chicago that might otherwise have been untold.
Chronicles of Black Chicago: A Lifetime Tribute to the Life and Works of Eric Werner will be at the DuSable Museum this Sunday, April 17, from 3 to 5 pm.