Famed photographer Ansel Adams once said a good photograph is knowing where to stand. A new book out this week showcases the jaw-dropping and redefining moments in Chicago’s recent history, all from talented newspaper photographers, like Pulitzer-Prize winner John White, who knew exactly where to stand to get their shot.
The book, “Chicago Exposed: Defining Moments from the Chicago Sun-Times Photo Archive,” begins with Chicagoans heading off to World War II and concludes with photos from the COVID-19 pandemic and protests in 2020. After sifting through millions of photos, the editors selected about 100 stills that show major events, such as shoppers on State Street finding out that President John F. Kennedy was killed and Martin Luther King Jr. in Marquette Park after he was hit by a rock.
“Photographers create magic almost every day. And that’s really the essence of the book,” said “Chicago Exposed” editor Richard Cahan.
Cahan and Chicago Sun-Times editorial writer Lee Bey, who wrote the introduction for the book, recently joined WBEZ’s Reset to discuss the project. Here are a few highlights from the interview.
On the selecting a photo of Mamie Till Mobley at her son Emmett Till’s funeral for the cover
Richard Cahan: I think that’s a very important time in American history. This was taken just days or just hours after she decided to open up the casket of her son so the whole world could see what it looked like. And it was her bravery, it was her stand that really changed the course of civil rights. And so I think it’s one of the most important Sun-Times photographs.
Lee Bey: I’d never seen that particular photograph before. We’re talking about one of the most photographed women of that age and, and I’d never seen that photograph before. And I was struck by it, saddened by it. Part of me didn’t want to see it, didn’t want to show it and then accepted the fact that it’s history and it belongs and she played the role in history and she belongs.
On what you can expect to see inside
Cahan: These are not pretty photographs of Chicago, they really are revealing looks at who we are as a people, as a culture and I think that a hint, some of the photographs, even though they might have been taken in the 1940s, they hint at life in 2021.
Bey: Typically when we showcase Chicago … We try to showcase the city at its best, right? And always at its best, and showing the good side and this book doesn’t do that, but these are important images. There’s a set of images in here that are beautiful, but they’re real. And I guess that’s really the point of it isn’t us putting on airs, it isn’t us showing the John Hancock building for the 50th time — it’s showing the city, warts and all, and drawing inspiration and knowledge and history from that.
On pairing the photos with short essays by people like former Obama adviser David Axelrod and Congressman Bobby Rush
Cahan: Instead of just showing photographs, we wanted to connect people to the people who are either on the scene or who are most experts in each of the photographs, so it’s been a search for the last year or so about who could best write about each photograph. Sometimes it’s historians, sometimes it’s reporters, sometimes it’s the photographers who took the photographs. Richard Derk wrote about the day that he photographed John Wayne Gacy in the back of a police vehicle. And I think they get real new insight to each of these photographs.
On the legacy of Sun-Times photojournalists showcased in the book
Bey: I (worked at the Sun-Times) when John White, Bob Black, Brian Jackson and others were there. They could be in the community and stroll through the community and cover the community and … you could see the respect that they garnered. And that only comes when people know that you see them, you recognize them, and you recognize them with respect and truth.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.