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Untitled (man with arms around two women), 1950-60’s

Lee Balterman’s Chicago

By Paul Berlanga, Director, Stephen Daiter Gallery

Lee Balterman has romanced the city of Chicago with his camera for six decades and shows no sign of falling out of love. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned to Lee that my partner and I had managed to grab a last lunch at the legendary Berghoff restaurant without standing in line; two- to three-hour waits being the rule in the final weeks of its operation. Lee listened and smiled. Days later he called to say how he’d just finished shooting inside the Berghoff during the last regular business hours of its 106 years. I had also mentioned our stop later that same day at Marshall Field’s Walnut Room, another Chicago icon, and on my next visit to his place Lee pulled out a score of old prints of – yes – the Walnut Room.

This is Lee’s town.

At 86, Lee has a more youthful appearance that resembles certain self-portraits by a middle-aged Giorgio de Chirico, the surrealist painter. Grey hair covers a broad forehead and generous features fill out an animated face. He has an informal bearing and a workingman’s frame, but he moves with a robust ease that belies both his build and his years. Despite the inevitable complications posed by advancing age, Lee remains a genial, alert and prolific artist.

Mostly, Lee photographs Chicagoans, recording them compulsively and with great affection. “PEOPLE – NOT BUILDINGS!” he likes to emphasize. Despite having taken countless remarkable images of the city’s armature—its skyscrapers, storefronts and avenues—to Lee those remain backdrops to the unending exploration of the human carnival that has always been his first love. That being said, many of Lee’s portraits of places do evince the human pulse all by themselves. There is a striking picture of the corner of Clark and Madison, black with night, ablaze with neon, and featuring the famous Blue Note jazz club and the old Clark Theater. Lee’s print captures the sense of drama and excitement that Chicago’s “Loop” exuded at mid-century. The Blue Note hosted artistic giants such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan. A couple of doors away, the image of the Clark conjures up memories of my friends who would regularly spend afternoons skipping classes in favor watching old films there. The well-known Clark, in a turn-of-the-century building, had originally been both the Adelphi and the Columbia, offering theater and burlesque. Remodeled as movie house in 1931 – by the sixties it had evolved into a cheap, cinematic haven that was open almost 24 hours. The Clark showed a different double feature every day – from classics to B–movies – making it unique in the city and establishing for it a cult following. It also attracted lost souls and the occasional predator, and there was a roped-off area for females only. The Clark was razed in 1974 along with the entire block of 19th and early-20th century buildings it was a part of. Its memory survives with a small fan base on the Internet.

Untitled (bar scene), 1950’s

Born Elmore Lee Balterman in 1920 at Chicago’s Augustana Hospital, Lee (the youngest of three brothers) has lived almost his entire life downtown and on the North Side. Not long after graduating from Lake View High School in 1938, he took evening classes in drawing and painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I was no good!” he offers amiably of those efforts, but in his photography it seems apparent that he kept his painter’s eye. During this time he worked for an uncle, Sam Reich, who had a dress manufacturing business headquartered at 318 West Adams. Lee hated the two years he spent there and he was relieved to later land a job in the promotion department at the old Chicago Sun newspaper. He fondly remembers working occasionally with Jim Mulroy, a reporter who back in the twenties had covered the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case.

Enter the Second World War. In 1942 Lee enlisted in the Army Reserve and served in Europe until 1946. He was stationed primarily with the 108th General Hospital — first in England, then in Clichy, France — and performed general duties in operating rooms. In 1945 he transferred to the Army Signal Corps, eventually becoming an official war photographer. Moving in a somewhat unorthodox direction, Lee spent the early years of the war as a corporal and ended up as a private. “I went AWOL,” he explained. When asked why he took such a risk, he responded with a look of incredulity and, with a sweeping flourish of his arms, blurted out: “PARIS!”

After his discharge in 1946, Lee returned to Chicago and almost immediately set about establishing a studio and becoming a professional freelance photographer. He took assignments from the Globe, Rapho-Guillumette and Black Star agencies of New York and worked for a variety of periodicals while simultaneously pursuing his own photography. I asked Lee about his formal photographic training and he reflexively pointed a thumb at himself and smiled: “Self-taught!” However true that may be (considering his experiences in the Army and at the newspaper) his work is accomplished and confident. There is a visceral, almost painterly quality to much of his photography – a rawness shaped by strong design and in the service of insightful social documentation. On a conscious level Lee seems to have been largely unconcerned with the formalist issues that emerged from schools such as the Institute of Design. Coincidentally, however, it was to be with an Institute of Design photography student, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, that Lee would form the most significant artistic relationship of his life. After being introduced in 1948-49 by another ID pupil—Marvin Newman—Balterman and Ishimoto eventually became great friends and spent a good deal of time together prowling and photographing in the streets of the city. “Yas,” as Lee still calls him, would become a renowned photographer. Ishimoto lives in Tokyo but to this day calls Chicago his second home and remains close to Lee.

During the fifties and sixties, Lee executed numerous assignments, including covers, for Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and other periodicals. His first cover for Life -September 6, 1968 – featured Senators Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie. That year also saw the beginning of a brief two-year marriage and a move of both home and studio from 920 North Michigan Avenue to a Mies van der Rohe high-rise on Lake Shore Drive.


Lee often traveled for work throughout his career. The Globe agency sent Lee to Michigan to do background photography on the set of the Otto Preminger film, Anatomy of a Murder. Fortune magazine had him reporting for duty to Norfolk, Virginia to board and photograph the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and crew. Life assigned him to cover a story on migrant workers in Ohio. Closer to home Lee photographed a multitude of events, ranging from a woman’s 100th birthday to the riots in Chicago and Detroit that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

After decades of working for numerous publications and agencies, Lee slowly disengaged from the world of editorial photography and began to indulge himself exclusively in his own projects. The picture magazine business model was undergoing changes. “It hurt my heart,” Lee said of the demise of Life magazine. For most of the last two decades he has been something of an artistic loner, working with neither professional nor collegial affiliations. His art finds him almost daily out in the streets, employing only available light and his Leica or Nikon to photograph the city he will never leave. Lee thrives upon the people he encounters in varied contexts, from demonstrations to celebrations, but he is no less drawn to any number of quieter subjects – the faces of passing strangers, parents leaving the zoo with children in tow, a window washer, sailors on leave, the lakefront chess pavilion subculture, or swimmers and divers in the nearby water. Lee has to photograph them.

In addition to photography, there is the other great passion in Lee’s life – baseball, or, rather, BASEBALL! (He had done some pitching for his high school team.) His eyes light up at the mention of the word, and he demands your attention as he pantomimes a well-rehearsed stance at the plate. During a multitude of imaginary check-swings, he delights in an equally well-rehearsed and heartfelt monologue about just how much he wanted to become a professional ballplayer.

“Only one thing prevented me!” he bellows: “TALENT!”

Sport’s loss is Art’s gain. The sports photographs reproduced in this catalogue (limited by space to baseball) are classics. The intensity and concentration of the players are perfectly matched by the anticipation and exuberance of the fans – and one needn’t be a sports enthusiast to appreciate the dynamic and elegant designs of these prints. Balterman’s decisive moments transcend any need to know who is catching or batting or what the score might be. True to his artistic orientation, Lee has stated that he is not very interested in illustrating action for its own sake but rather in capturing the individual. He manages to do both exceedingly well.

One of the most painful chapters in Chicago’s history is the December 1, 1958 fire at Our Lady of the Angels School on 3808 West Iowa Street. Ninety-two children and three nuns perished in an inferno so intense that Michele McBride, a terribly burned child survivor, wrote in her memoir, The Fire That Will Not Die (ETC Publications, 1979), of witnessing another young student literally explode. Sent by Life, Balterman movingly recorded the immediate aftermath of the devastation of this fire on the victims and their families. It is difficult to even discuss these powerful prints in terms of art – suffice it to say that here is rendered the human condition catapulted to extremes of horror and helplessness. If there are photographs that make one put aside personal concerns and reach out to embrace another human being, these are among those images.

In Balterman’s work there often appears to be a good comfort level with the people who become this affable artist’s subjects. It’s a nice thought but one that is often deceiving. Although publicity in magazines like Life was a catalyst in revamping fire codes and protocols nationwide, it was understandable that Lee had his life threatened by parents of Our Lady of the Angels fire victims, lost in shock and agony, unable to bear the indignity of any further intrusions. And in his extensive and wonderful series of character studies done in the Clark Street bars, Lee has admitted that some folks didn’t care much to be the objects of his interest and that at least one patron threw a bottle directly at him (it missed). I asked him what he had said to his would-be assailant. “NOTHING,” Lee said, sporting his trademark smile. “I’m a coward!”

Lee’s tavern pictures from the early fifties are all the more remarkable when one realizes that he took them as a personal inquiry – not as an assignment. Some of the photographs feature smiles and good cheer but others reveal broken faces and bent bodies belonging to people, no, to individuals – each of whom occupies his or her well-earned station in this backwater community. The latter subjects seem by turns desperate (especially in their frivolity) and resigned, and they are more at home here, with and near each other, than anywhere else. My father tended bar on a rough stretch of West Madison Street in the fifties, and as a small boy I had occasion to sit among people like these and some even less fortunate. These unvarnished Clark Street photographs showcase Balterman at his best.

There is a smell (a perfume to some) – pungent and unmistakable – that permeates certain older taverns, ones with histories, the ones Nelson Algren wrote about. It is the aged scent of sweat and too much spilled beer and whiskey to ever be expunged from the wood of the countless tables, chairs and floorboards. It marks, for better or for worse, a real bar. That smell is in these photographs.

This is Lee’s town.




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©Paul Berlanga, 2006

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