Before his death, one might have reasonably referred to Michael Abramson as a “celebrity portrait photographer,” although this wouldn’t have been strictly true. While he spent most of his career jetting around the world as a photographer to the stars, it seems likely that, in the current moment, Abramson will not be remembered for his shots of Oprah Winfrey or Steve Jobs or Steven Spielberg or Ron Howard or Michael Jordan. His legacy now resides in a series of photographs submitted as his graduate thesis before his professional career began in earnest. Unlike those of his later work, the subjects of these portraits are anonymous, defined only by the period and places in which they met Abramson and his camera—the nightclubs of the South Side in the mid-1970s.
These are the people and photographs featured in “Michael L. Abramson: Pulse of the Night,” an exhibition that Columbia College Chicago has elected to call Abramson’s “first large-scale show since 1977.” The venue for this “large-scale” show isn’t a gallery or museum, but the second floor of Columbia College’s library, where visitors can see the greatest works of Abramson’s life relegated to the back walls adjacent to the floor’s main bathrooms and water fountains, behind a cluster of printers. Bored students staring idly into space might set their eyes on the booze, and cigarettes, and nipple tassels featured in Abramson’s shots and daydream, for better or worse, about the weekend to come. Or weekends past. Whether this amounts to generosity or cruelty on the part of the exhibition’s organizers is up for the visitor to decide.
“I had a young man come up to me and say, ‘This seems just this far off from what we do today,’ ” says Tom Lunt, a friend of Abramson’s and the editor of Light: On the South Side, the 2009 book where the “Pulse of the Night” photos originally appeared. “And I said, ‘Yeah. It is.’ You could capture the same photographs almost anywhere.”
Though the photographs were taken in the 1970s, their age is not always obvious. The era is nearly always rendered in the popular consciousness in rich, often garish color. But in black and white, Abramson’s scenes seem as though they could have been shot decades earlier. Only a few tell-tale signs—broad sideburns and wide collars on the men, the sheen of certain fabrics, fringe bangs here and there—allow the viewer to date the photographs more precisely. The atmosphere depicted and its attendant details—heavy eyelids, lazy smiles, girlfriends, boyfriends, drinking, dancing—are, as Lunt says, timeless.
Abramson’s shots were directly influenced by the Hungarian photographer Brassaï, who achieved international fame in the 1930s and 1940s for capturing Parisian nightlife on film. His transposition of Brassaï’s compositional techniques from the favorite haunts of Parisian high society to South Side clubs with names like Perv’s House and Pepper’s Hideout amounted to more than just a change in scenery. Through his photographs, Abramson audaciously suggested that the gaiety of everyday African-American men and women in blues clubs was as worth capturing as the gaiety of anyone else, and at a time when camera film itself suggested otherwise.
“Not only did he have a great eye for composition and great understanding of the history of photography, he also had the understanding that film was not designed to capture African-American skin tones,” Lunt says. “For many years, it just wasn’t. If you were shooting African-American people, you were using film that was racist. It was white film.”
The most compositionally impressive photograph in the series is perhaps a profile shot taken of an African-American woman at Pepper’s Hideout in 1975. She looks downward, her face and skin’s subtle texture enveloped in shadow and by the smoke of her cigarette, while a light above illuminates her hair and the opulent fur collar of her coat. It’s a shot that easily could have been a still from a film noir and one that calls attention to Abramson’s apparent interest—perhaps conscious, perhaps not—in documenting how women navigated and carried themselves within his most frequented spaces. In many of the series’ photographs, men are almost literally pushed aside. They are left slouching or slumping at the edge of frame while their female companions are centered, allowing the viewer to examine their expressions: an annoyed glance upwards on one as an overeager boyfriend tries to cajole her into dancing, suggestive and drunkenly suspicious gazes at the camera on others.
The most poised figure in the series is another woman Abramson photographed in Perv’s House. She sits elegantly in a high-backed wicker chair looking directly at the camera with a fan in hand. A man remarkably permed and coiffed with a silk scarf around his neck, perhaps a date, seems on the verge of inebriated collapse on the right. It occurs to one viewing photos like this one that it would have been reasonable for Abramson’s subjects to be wary of his and his camera’s presence. But Lunt says that for the most part, Abramson was welcomed and sought after.
“When Michael would walk into these clubs, he’d get a ‘who’s the crazy white guy who walked in here and is taking our pictures?’ sort of thing,” he says. “But at the end of a half hour, he was completely accepted. And they called him the camera man.”
“There used to be a guy going around taking pictures and he’d sell you a Polaroid if you were out that night and looked good,” Lunt continues. “But they used to ask Michael. Michael was the camera man. That other guy that was trying to make money off of them? They didn’t care about him.”
It would have been easy for his project not to transcend simple voyeurism. But Abramson was invested enough in his subjects to return to the clubs after the photographs were developed to show them the finished work.
Anyone hoping to find the clubs Abramson shot today will likely be disappointed. Most have long since been shuttered. The space Pepper’s Hideout used to occupy is now a section of McCormick Place’s parking lot. As such, the photos in the exhibition are among the last extant artifacts of a bygone era in the history of the South Side. Abramson would go on to a career crafting timeless images of the rich and powerful. He got his start, though, suspending in time the revels of those who were not.