John Russick, vice president for Interpretations and Education for the Chicago History Museum, drove from his in-laws’ home in DeKalb to a collector’s home in Dixon in December 2017 to get a look at millions of images and negatives that once belonged to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“It was all there in front of me,” Russick said. “I got a chance to look through it, really get a sense of the scope and the significance of the collection.”
The collector, Leo Bauby, acquired the photos during a court-ordered sale after the previous owner, John Rogers, was convicted of selling millions of dollars worth of fake sports memorabilia.
Russick said Bauby buys historical photo collections and sells individual iconic images. The Sun-Times collection includes a 1991 photo of Michael Jordan kissing the first of six championship trophies with the Chicago Bulls and a 1959 pic of Marilyn Monroe deboarding a plane at Midway Airport. Both photographs would likely sell for a lot of money.
Russick, 56, said the Chicago History Museum was interested in images like that, but really wanted the collection because it captures everyday Chicagoans.
“They’re neighborhood parades, they’re political protests and they’re buildings under construction,” he said. “It’s the daily life of Chicago that was really reflected in this collection.”
In March 2018, the museum bought the entire collection from Bauby for $125,000, Russick said.
Former Sun-Times photo editor Richard Cahan, 66, was the first to alert the Chicago History Museum that the collection existed.
Cahan is co-curator of Millions of Moments: The Chicago Sun-Times Photo Collection, which includes 150 images displayed chronologically and thematically. Archivists at the Chicago History Museum are currently digitizing millions of other images from the collection to make them available to the public.
Below are some of the images featured in the exhibit, including commentary from Cahan and former Sun-Times photographer, Bob Black, who worked at the paper from 1968-2006.
“Muddy Waters performing at Mister Kelly’s nightclub”
Bob Black, the Sun-Times’ first African American photographer, shot the image of the Blues legend in 1971. Black said the spotlight at Mister Black’s, a former Rush Street club, “added to the mood of the shot.”
“Students at North Avenue Beach” by Ken Blackbird
Cahan said assignments like this photo, taken in 1994, were simply known as “weather.”
“We never really specified where we wanted [the photographers] to get weather,” Cahan said. “Weather was kind of a term that just meant, ‘go out and take a picture that’s not newsworthy.’ ”
The images were often used to fill pages in the newspaper, but on display they really capture the city, Cahan said.
“San Juan Day” by Bob Kotalik
Looking back through the archive, Cahan said it was difficult to find images that didn’t “portray the Hispanic community in a non-stereotypical manner.” Cahan said that made him think about how these communities had been covered by the paper in the past.
“Democratic Party delegate holds up Down with Daley sign” and “Democratic Party delegate holds up We Love Mayor Daley sign” by Henry Herr Gill
Cahan said the juxtaposition of these photos snapped by Henry Herr Gill at the 1968 Democratic National Convention highlights a turning point in Chicago history.
Months before the convention, in April, looting and rioting shook mainly the city’s West Side, leading Mayor Richard J. Daley to instruct police to “shoot to kill any arsonists … and shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting.”
“Buildings burn during riots following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination” by Bob Kotalik
Black, who started at the Sun-Times one month before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, captured the grieving faces of mourners at Liberty Baptist Church on the South Side.
“I heard it on the radio, and I stopped for a moment just to catch my breath,” Black said. “The next thing was, ‘How can I shoot this? How can I document this? Where do I go?’ ”
This aerial shot is of West Madison Street on the city’s West Side, where looting and riots broke out after Dr. King’s assassination.
“Funeral cortege for Mayor Richard J. Daley”
Black said, “You could tell [Daley] was in charge just by how people reacted in his presence.”
At neighborhood ward meetings, Daley would wait at the back of the venue, and as soon as the mayor walked in, “whoever was speaking, they would stop on a dime when that door opened in the back. Stopped on a dime,” Black said with a laugh.
“Rutherford B. Hayes Elmore, 112, and great-great-great-granddaughter Kiowa Gray” by Bob Black
Black won the World Press Photo Award in 1984 for this image in the “Daily Life” category.
“I shot a tight shot of his face, his hands, just to show how the aging process had taken place,” Black said. “Then they brought this little girl over … and just before she left, somebody said, ‘OK, give grandpa a kiss.’ ”
Meet former Sun-Times photographer Bob Black
Black, 81, said he worked through several technological changes in photography — black and white, then color, and finally digital. Black said nearly 15 years after he retired, he still gets “the itch” to photograph certain events and people. One of those? The election of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Carrie Shepherd is a reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cshepherd. Mary Hall produced this story for web. Follow her @hall_marye.