LIFE Magazine – ‘Chicago Gang Wars’
Fuck technology. I had a blog on Integrity (the band that is, nothing to do with my lack of it) prepped on my BlackBerry, but it lost it. Or I could be lying. Anyhow, before I rewrite a paen to Dwid and company, I can fall back on the lapsing blogger’s friend, the LIFE photo archive. I could trawl through that thing for 72 hours straight like a crack binger and still be fiending for more.You might be familiar with the photo journalism of Declan Haun primarily his documentation of the Civil Rights movement – spending 15 years in Chicago he documented his hometown in depth, and given the Windy City’s gang problem, it was inevitable that he’d be there gaining access to capture it in its formative years.
Another great LIFE contributor, born and bred Chicago photographer Lee Balterman, who, unlike Declan, who passed away depressingly early (in his mid 50′s), is still shooting, albeit for himself rather than journalistic deadlines, covered gangs too, as did Art Shay, another, extremely prolific legend (it’s worth digging out something you won’t see on LIFE – his rejected Nelson Algren photo essay) behind the camera in the city. All three artists deserve at least an individual blog post, but this is a recovery mission, and time isn’t on my side.
As an outsider, I won’t construct a bantamweight opinion on US gang culture – while I gather that politics ultimately play their part (but surely not on the same scale?) my opinion on matters would probably echo the naivety of some of my American friends’ ultra-simplified take on Ireland’s Troubles.
It’s depressingly topical in that these images, seemingly part of a piece called ‘Chicago Gang Wars’ capture swaggering, weapon-wielding youngsters 40 years before it became the glossy newspaper supplement shock-over-a-cup-of-tea formula of choice. Machete and sawn-off wielding innercity teens screwfacing for the cameras in London’s rougher broughs is a quick route for snappers to earn awards come Christmas. Looking at Chicago’s current state, it seems that gang membership reached epidemic levels in the years that followed this LIFE piece. Is that what we Brits have got to look forward to?
Looking like they date back to the late ’60s, these images mix a rawness and beauty in their composition, while doing their job in documenting what I assume was a no-go area for many. Arthur seems to document the Almighty Black P-Stones, while Declan shoots many Disciples members.
I’d like to note, that this is in no way an endorsement of the gang lifestyle. Still, while LA has ‘Bastards Of The Party’ and ‘Lay Down Old Man’ and NYC has ‘Flying Cut Sleeves’ and ‘ ’80 Blocks From Tiffany’s', I’ve never seen a gang documentary on Chicago beyond the old world racketeering and illegal hooch era. I’m sure PBS must have had one commissioned over the years. While we’re talking documentaries, go check RapRadar for rare footage of a 20/20 hip-hop special from 1981.
Anyhow, ultimately, the most dangerous characters are the ones well out-of-shot that spilled from the University Of Chicago’s economic department.