Democracy Dies in Darkness

In Sight | Perspective

What it was like in the nightclubs of Chicago’s South Side in the 1970s

August 20, 2018 at 6:00 AM

Michael Abramson didn’t start out as a photographer. He started out wanting to go into business, graduating from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1970. But somewhere along the way, he took an interest in photography and enrolled in the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. It was here that he became interested in life in the nightclubs on Chicago’s South Side.

For the thesis that earned Abramson a master’s degree from IIT, he spent two years (1975-1977) getting to know the characters in those clubs. In 1978, Abramson won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the work eventually launched his career as a photojournalist. His work in the clubs has often been compared to that of the great French photographer Brassai, who documented nightlife in Paris in the early decades of the 20th century.

Abramson would go on to have a successful career as a freelance photographer, working for clients such as Time, the New York Times, Newsweek, People, Forbes and Harper’s, among other publications. In 2009, the work was in the book “Light: On the South Side” (Numero Group). The book was accompanied by an album featuring Chicago blues that earned a Grammy nomination. Abramson died in 2011 of kidney cancer.

Abramson’s work is on display at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Ore. The show brings together vintage silver gelatin prints of the work and runs through Sept. 2. Abramson’s work can be found in numerous museums, including the Smithsonian, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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Kenneth Dickerman is a photo editor. He previously worked as a photo editor at MSN in Seattle and TIME in New York City. Before that, he worked as a freelance photographer specializing in politics and conflict and his work appeared in The New York Times, TIME and US News & World Report among other publications.

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