An Era, Close Up

Courtesy of the DuSable Museum

Early in Roy Lewis’s photography career, his mentor Ted Williams suggested that Lewis choose an artistic theme as soon as possible. Lewis tried to follow Williams’s advice, settling upon “music, poetry, art, protests, churches, politics, and family.” But, as this list makes clear, he never really settled.

For the exhibit “Everywhere” at the DuSable Museum of African American History, Lewis selected works from across his repertoire to create an exhibit about people. Lewis, an African American who came of age during the turbulent civil rights era, focuses his attention on black subjects and the spaces they occupy, both photographically and historically.

A wall inscription states that Lewis’s “goal is to bring about a reunion of sorts between black people and the cultures and experiences that once shaped our ancestors.” Though the photographs are located in a specific political narrative, the pieces carry a universal appeal–optimism and vitality resonate through the darkest situations. In “Father & Son– Mothering,” a young man stares off to the right holding his baby son in his left arm. The man’s expression is hard to place, his lips either a weary half-smile or pursed in frustration. The title implies that the man is a single father occupying a traditionally feminized role. Yet–perhaps contrary to the viewer’s expectations–he is not resentful. The firmness in his pose indicates instead a resolute strength that comes from serving one’s family.

“Mr. White–We Built This Country” presents a different take on the experiences of working class black men. An old man stares directly at the viewer, almost past the camera. The close-up displays a weathered face, shadows accentuating its wrinkles and curves. As in most of Lewis’s photos, the black-and-white compositions rely on high contrast and subdued backgrounds to emphasize the uniqueness of each human subject.  “Mr. White” takes a relatable everyman figure and transforms him into a vibrant, detailed individual rather than an abstract type or one-dimensional caricature.

While Lewis often studies ordinary, working class subjects, he is most famous for his iconic shots of musicians, celebrities, and politicians. In these pieces, Lewis moves away from deeply personal moments and instead examines the energy of public performance. In “Spirit of James Brown and Maceo Parker–Regal Theatre,” shot from a sharp side angle and blurred to indicate motion, Brown and Parker are caught glistening with sweat, totally immersed in the music. This intensity can be found in his other portraits as well: Muhammad Ali walking towards the camera, slouched yet tensely mobile, or Martin Luther King, Jr. standing mid-oratory before a dozen microphones. The camera is placed at angles that let the subjects tower over the viewer, as if to make the subjects’ celebrity status blatantly clear. Louis X and Elijah Muhammad–leaders in the Nation of Islam–are shot in a similar fashion. The photographs’ titles allude to Lewis’s own political sympathies (“Louis X–Preaching the Truth” and “Honorable Elijah Muhammad–the Messenger”).

“Everywhere” carries the viewer along a historical timeline from 1960s civil rights rallies in Chicago and Jackson, Mississippi to President Obama’s signing of the health care bill. However, the exhibit subordinates specific actions and themes to the individual actors. By avoiding ornate symbolism, Lewis brings out the general spirit of the civil rights struggle from the specific history of American race relations. The exquisite details Lewis captures and their plain presentation push viewers to more closely examine the photographs themselves.

They are worth the attention.

DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl. Through December 31. Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday, 12-5pm. (773)947-0600. Free. dusablemuseum.org