Local Lens is a series where Block Club photographer Colin Boyle explores the story behind the photograph.
BRONZEVILLE — I am all in when it comes to niche Chicago history.
So I couldn’t have been more excited when I joined Bronzeville reporter Jamie Nesbitt Golden to get an exclusive look at 127-year-old stage backdrops recently discovered in storage at The Forum.
The backdrops are massive, vibrant pieces of painstaking craftsmanship. They sat forgotten in storage for decades until the team restoring The Forum rediscovered them weeks ago.
As the team gingerly unfurled the large painted tapestries on the worn floors, the still-vivid vistas were visible in the dimly-lit hall.
To the naked eye, you could see the details but many were not clear after years of disrepair.
But with the pop of my off-camera strobe, the dust-coated and damaged backdrops came back to life. The light bounced off of the rich colors on the art pieces and they shone through the disrepair.
More than once, I clamored up a ladder atop the stage. One hand for the climb, the other for my flash.
Seeing the backdrops up close was moving as is, but from that height you truly got a sense of the scale — and I wanted to show that to our audience.
Gathering around a piece depicting the Forum in Rome, our attention was drawn to a trio of Black people at the center.
This detail could easily be overlooked by today’s standards, but Dr. Wendy Waszut-Barrett, president of Historic Stage Services LLC., said it was the first time she’s seen people of color depicted in a piece from this era.
Before Bronzeville became the Black metropolis, the neighborhood was predominantly German in the late 1890s. Around that time, the German side of my family came to Chicago.
“It’s remarkable,” Waszut-Barrett said, as we peered down.
Remarkable it was. I zoomed my camera in tight onto the trio and I felt emotions rush through me as I recognized the rare glimpse of history in front of me.
After Jamie’s story published, I was honored when Forum owner Bernard Loyd asked to enlarge some of my images to display for Open House Chicago.
“They [the backdrops] are extraordinary to begin, but with the lighting they just came alive,” Loyd said. “You just couldn’t deny the story that was trying to jump out at you.”
Just days later, Loyd opened his South Side venue’s doors to the public for Open House Chicago. It was “exhilarating,” he said.
My images were turned into large banners, hung with care within the Forum and outside the building as the venue continues ongoing renovations.
One of my close-up photos depicting the trio was turned into thousands of fliers to spread the word of the plans to revive the Forum.
Photo by Edward Boyle
“[The photos] will serve as [an] entry point into the Forum, into the community, into the community’s history,” Loyd told me.
Back to the niche history, Open House is my favorite weekend of the year in the city. We saw many sites across the city that Sunday, making sure our first was on 43rd Street.
I was delighted when I saw visitors stand close to the large prints of my images, knowing that these photos could help draw connections between Bronzeville’s past and its future.
Again, I stood in the center of the dimly lit hall, and this time it felt so alive with more people, all while the sound of the Junta Jazz Ensemble filled the space from the stage to the wall where my photos now hang.
I anxiously await the day where I can see The Forum come alive in its full glory again. I’ll be there with my camera when the day arrives.
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