From 1978 to 1979, photographer David Gremp documented the neighborhoods of Chicago. He was hired to be an artist in residence for the Chicago Public Library system under the auspices of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). Signed into law in 1973 by Richard Nixon, CETA was an extension of the WPA, but emphasized state or local programs over federal ones. Gremp was given free reign to take pictures as he wished. In the brief wall-text which accompanies the exhibit of his photographs at the Harold Washington Center, “Straight Into the Camera” (through May 15th) he writes that he didn’t get to know his subjects very well. Often he didn’t even know their names, but he asked all of them to look straight into his lens. He shot hundreds of rolls of film. Now a couple dozen of those faces stare back at us from the walls of a room on the 9th floor of the library. Some of the more compelling ones don’t feature any people at all.
The pictures are grouped by neighborhood. In Ashburn, three nearly identical bungalows are framed together. The longer you look, the more small differences appear. The shape of the walk, a bush rather than a tree by a window, each little detail serves to set one house apart from its neighbor. On a sign outside a brick house in Pullman, a gospel minister offers classes in soul-winning, but also notary services, as well as lecturing on unspecified subjects. In Lincoln Square, the window of a barber shop advertises ‘friseur’ service while reflecting the Korean characters of the sign across the street. In South Lawndale, two tough-looking women guard the doorway of Bonnie’s Tavern. They’re framed by gang graffiti on the brick facade to either side of them.
—reads the shirt of a woman in Uptown, the lettering almost lining up to the carwash sign against which she’s posed. A black kid with a fro smiles big from the window of a newsstand in Chinatown.
Seen together these pictures are a window upon the city as it once was and in many ways still is. Though some of the signage and fashion is of its time, much of the architecture and many of these faces are still recognizably our own. Good photography is able to simultaneously act as both time capsule and mirror. Though Gremp’s Chicago is over 35 years old, I could walk its streets and not get lost.