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.
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!”
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!”
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.
ASX CHANNEL: LEE BALTERMAN
©Paul Berlanga, 2006