As the overhead lights slowly fade away, the first photograph is placed on the glowing display case, a structure that serves as an easel, both lighting and framing the piece. A hush descends on the Washington Park Fieldhouse, subduing the cries, hugs, and sounds of kisses on cheeks that filled the space moments ago.
A middle-aged woman holds prints in front of the light and calls out their titles one by one while judges examine the photographs on offer: a disparate array of images that includes portraits of Chicago blues musicians, reclining lions, boat docks, flower petals, and skyscrapers.
About every other month, on a Tuesday night, the Washington Park Camera Club hosts a friendly photography competition. It’s a chance for members to both showcase and constructively critique their current work. During typical meetings, the members share their knowledge about photography by discussing various camera techniques, hosting “how-to” workshops, and organizing photo-taking outings to areas like the Morton Arboretum, forty minutes west of the city in Lisle, IL.
The Camera Club, founded in 1955, is the oldest primarily African-American photography club in Chicago. Although the meetings have always been focused on the serious discussion of photography, the thirty members, who are generally middle-aged and older, also treat each other like an old family, snacking on chips and exchanging smiles, cheering various camera brands and booing the mention of others.
“This club is an outlet for people of like minds,” says Duane Savage, the club’s president, who joined four years ago in order to pursue his side interest in photography. “It’s for anyone interested at any level, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a master photographer. It’s about providing instruction for camera techniques and sharing a passion.”
The members converge on Washington Park from all over Chicago to share this passion, predominantly from areas close by, but also from the south suburbs and the North Side. The club’s oldest member and historical committee chairman, Fred Loft, grew up in the area and has been part of the club for forty-two years.
While its character hasn’t changed much over time, the club is working on many new technological improvements. They’re currently planning the renovation of the fieldhouse’s now-unused darkroom into a digital print lab. The members are also discussing creating a new, independent offshoot of the club specifically designed for youth on the South Side. They plan on lending out cameras and digital equipment to teenagers so that they can document life on their streets and in their homes.
Support seems to be the club’s central motif. Cheers, applause, and embraces burst into the room once more when the judges announce the winning image in the competition. The award goes to Philip Thomas for a dramatic portrait of a shirtless muscular man shrouded in shadows, whose upward gaze draws the viewer’s eye and creates a tense, striking composition. As the competition concludes, the meeting ends as it began, with warmth, light, and friendships that develop like photographs.