Peppers Hideout, Perv’s House, the High Chaparral, the Patio Lounge, and the Showcase Lounge – the names alone are intriguing. They were the clubs of Chicago’s South Side in the 197os, which played underground funk, blues, and early disco, and which also played host to a glamorous crowd of music-lovers. “It was a living self-contained theatre,” said Michael Abramson, the photographer who photographed the scene.
A white man in a predominantly black crowd, popping off half a dozen rolls of film every night with a Leica and a flash, Abramson was an unlikely chronicler. But, throwing himself into the lifestyle, he was able to win his subjects’ trust by getting into their scene – caught on film drinking, laughing, and dancing with his subjects into small hours, he “had a ball”, he said.
Born in New Jersey in 1948, Abramson was working on his Master of Photography from the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago when he shot the series for this thesis; the photographs won him a National Endowment for the Arts in 1978, and helped him launch his career. He went on to become a highly sought-after portrait photographer and photojournalist, frequently publishing his work in Time, New York Times, Newsweek, Wall Street Journal, and many more, and exhibiting in institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago. He died in 2011.
Abramson’s images of Chicago’s South Side clubs have been made into two books. The first, Light: On The South Side (2009), included 100 of his images, plus colourful ephemera and an essay by Nick Hornby, and was published with a compilation of tracks from the time by artists – including Little Mac Simmons, Arlean Brown, Bobby Rush, Lady Margo, Little Ed. It went on to be nominated for both a Grammy and a Mojo award.
The second, Gotta Go Gotta Flow: Life, Love, and Lust on Chicago’s South Side from the Seventies (2015), paired Abramson’s images with poetry by Patricia Smith, a writer who grew up near by these clubs. “These fiercely breathing visuals are a last link,” she says, “to the unpredictable, blade-edged and relentlessly funky city I once knew.”
Michael Abramson: Tales from the South Side. 1970’s Chicago Clubs is on show from 21 March – 05 May at MMX Gallery, 448 New Cross Road, London SE14 6TY www.mmxgallery.com