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Washington Park Camera Club, Chicago’s Oldest Club For Black Photographers, Spotlights The Park’s Past And Present

The virtual "South Park Then and Now" exhibit documents Washington Park, Jackson Park and the Midway — all designed by Frederick Law Olmsted — through the lenses of photographers past and present.

Left: Members of the Washington Park Camera Club and retired Chicago Park District historian Julia Bachrach (seated) pose for a picture during a June 2021 walking tour. Right: John Singer Sargent's 1895 portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted, the American landscape architect who designed Washington Park, Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance.
Provided; Wikimedia Commons
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WASHINGTON PARK — In the 150 years since Frederick Law Olmsted oversaw Washington Park’s creation, some original aspects have faded away, others stand strong and once-new additions have become timeless landmarks.

Sheep aren’t deployed as the park’s lawnmowers anymore, but the George Washington Monument has remained in the park’s northwest area for most of its existence.

An administrative building at the park’s east end has been standing since 1910, though it’s taken on new functions. The building later became a Park District police station and has hosted the DuSable Museum of African American History since 1973.

Changes and continuities like these were recently documented by the Washington Park Camera Club’s predominantly Black photographers. They’ve developed a virtual exhibit honoring legendary park designer Frederick Law Olmsted on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

“South Park Then and Now” shares the stories of three connected, Olmsted-designed parks — Washington, Jackson and the Midway Plaisance — pairing up images from past photographers with those taken by camera club members.

The exhibit shows how details throughout the parks may change, but the parks’ purpose — allowing city dwellers to easily get in touch with nature — remains, its creators said.

The virtual exhibit debuts April 26 as part of the Olmsted 200: Parks for All People project, a nationwide celebration of the landscape architect who also designed New York City’s Central Park, Detroit’s Belle Isle Park and about 100 other recreational areas.

The camera club, in partnership with the Hyde Park Historical Society and the Terra Foundation’s Art Design Chicago Now initiative, created photo pairings of decades-old images with new creations by club members.

Olmsted’s “belief was that everyone should share the parks,” said Yvonne Cary Carter, vice chair of the camera club’s archive committee and lead organizer of the exhibit. “They’re a democratic space where people of different backgrounds and socio-economic matters all come together.”

Credit: Chicago Public Library/Yvonne Cary Carter
Yvonne Cary Carter blended a photo of a man in a suit circa 1910 with an October 2021 photo of a man in casual gear, to simulate the two sharing in the natural beauty of the South Park System.

Documenting ‘Our Backyard’

“South Park Then and Now” allowed for a trip down memory lane for camera club members, including Duane Savage, for whom Washington Park was “our backyard” as he grew up on Calumet Avenue through the 1960s, he said.

The project has its roots in the club’s initial plan to archive and display a “then-and-now” exhibit about Washington Park in the park’s refectory, which was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. “Olmsted 200” allowed for an expansion of those initial plans, members said.

Savage narrated the exhibit’s video and contributed photo pairings, including then-and-now images of the DuSable Museum, the Washington Park lagoon and the site of a now-demolished boathouse in the park.

Savage’s ties to the museum building date to before the DuSable Museum moved in. He was a young boy when he took his first walkie-talkies to the police who were once stationed there.

After all, federal regulations required him to “make sure it’s legal in your area” before using the radios, said Savage, the club’s competition committee chair and its former president. The officers “got a good chuckle” out of his scrupulousness, he said.

Savage also recalled hopping the park pool’s fence after adult swims ended but before the pool was drained, as well as playing softball with National Guardsmen stationed in the park during the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Washington Park is a perfect place for exploration and socializing, whether wholesome or mischievous, Savage said. It’s a role the South Park system has played for countless other Chicagoans since 1871, he said.

“To just see the connection [between] the things I did and Olmsted’s original vision — that’s the thing that really hit me in the face,” Savage said. “He intended for big, open areas to be used by … people in the community to come out and do things. Here, [more than] 100 years later, they are still fulfilling that same function.”

Credit: Harvey Cobb III
Left: Harvey Cobb Jr. poses behind the George Washington Monument at the northwest entrance to Washington Park in 1936. Right: His son, Harvey Cobb III, recreates his father’s photo in 2014.

For club member Harvey Cobb III, the exhibit offered a chance to relive an old family memory.

Cobb’s father, who came to Chicago during the First Great Migration, was photographed in front of the George Washington Monument near 51st Street in 1936. Cobb recreated the photo — which curiously faces the monument’s rear — in 2014 and contributed it to the exhibit, Savage said.

Cary Carter juxtaposed a 1910 photo of a man dressed in a business suit so he’s “sitting on a graffitied bench in the park, next to a gentleman with locs and casual attire from today,” she said. “That shows how everybody’s coming together in the same space, and how important these parks are to us.”

The Cheney-Goode Memorial on the Midway Plaisance is also documented for the Olmsted 200 project. A photo from its 1932 dedication ceremony is paired with a recent image by camera club President Vanessa Thomas.

Many of the historical photos are sourced from collections at the Chicago Public Library and University of Chicago Library.

As club members worked on the exhibit, they took walks around the parks with Julia Bachrach, a retired Park District historian of nearly 30 years. The walks helped the photographers learn new aspects of the parks they’ve long visited, Thomas said.

“I had never traveled that far back up in the parks,” she said. “Just seeing some of the ‘then’ pictures, it’s really amazing how it looks now. Some are almost the same, and then others are totally different. It’s really been a learning experience.”

Those walking tours will be replicated through Art Design Chicago Now this summer, said Bachrach, who partnered with Cary Carter to kickstart the virtual exhibit plans last year. She’ll lead free tours June-August of Olmsted’s landscapes in Jackson Park, the Midway and Washington Park.

“No matter where anyone came from or what differences people had, they had the same kinds of needs for getting close to nature and having a chance to get away and refresh from work,” Bachrach said.

“That message has carried through all the different generations. I loved how the club embraced this idea of learning more about the parks and their histories.”

Credit: Provided
Sheep graze in the meadow at Washington Park to keep it well-trimmed in this photo circa 1910.
Credit: Linda Jones-Woodey
Geese graze in a Washington Park ball field — keeping it well-fertilized — in this 2021 photo.

Even once the exhibit and related programs are complete, club members plan to keep documenting changes to the South Side’s parks and the surrounding community, they said.

Thomas is particularly excited about the hummingbird garden being planted near Washington Park’s lagoon, while the club’s archive committee is working to document the effects of disinvestment and displacement on the neighborhood that bears the park’s name.

“We’re in a community where a lot of the buildings, they’re being torn down,” Cary Carter said. “We want to document it in photographs. If you were in another club, that might not be as important — but a lot of people are from this area and have a pretty strong bond.”

‘I Just Love This Camera Club’

As camera club members preserve and add to the South Park system’s history, they oversee the evolution of a club that’s served Black photographers on the South Side since 1955.

At nearly 50 members, the Washington Park Camera Club is “a long way” from its peak of about 100 — reached “when people didn’t have nowhere else to spend their time,” said Fred Lott, 90, the club’s historian and a member of nearly five decades.

“You didn’t have cellphones and the cable TV and all the things we have now,” Lott said. “You needed places like this to go to.”

But the club is still thriving, thanks to its leaders’ commitments to their roles and its members’ ability to adapt, they said.

Lott’s involvement in the club tapered off after a couple decades of film photography. But his interest in the medium was revived after taking a digital photography course at Olive-Harvey College in the late ’90s, he said.

Credit: Fred Lott
At 90 years old, camera club historian Fred Lott continues to adapt to advances in photography and technology. His recent “alteration of reality” series uses digital tools like Photoshop to manipulate his images.

“Once I started getting back [with] digital photography, I was all in,” said Lott, who has focused his craft on creating altered-reality digital images in recent years. “It didn’t require all the equipment and everything you would do for a darkroom.”

The Washington Park Camera Club, one of only a few predominantly Black groups in the Chicago Area Camera Club Associations, also operates a mentorship program to connect new and young photographers with established vets.

“We really provide avenues to get in” to the field, Savage said. “I say that because Black folks in general aren’t exposed to high-end equipment; they aren’t exposed to careers in photography. … We provide a way for a beginner to come along and not be so intimidated.”

Even as the club faces forward, its archive committee is working to ensure Washington Park’s past — and the club’s — isn’t forgotten.

After going decades without an archive of members’ photos, “we wanted to leave something behind for members of the club 20 or 30 years from now,” said Savage, who helped Lott create the archive.

“I just love this camera club” and all its roles, from serving as a resource for Black photographers of all skill levels to its nearly seven decades spent documenting the community, Cary Carter said.

“I’m a retired Chicago detective who used to process crime scenes — what I did was photography,” Cary Carter said. “Now my photography has taken on a different aspect. It’s being enriched with the people that i’m working with and the subject matter.

“It means a lot, photographing the beauty of Washington Park.”

The club meets 7 p.m. Tuesdays on Zoom. For more information on becoming a member, click here.

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